OUR lections explore how the election of Israel is a source of blessing for all nations. Psalm 67 is a celebration of the Lord’s blessing on Israel, and also a summons to all nations to rejoice. The first verse evokes the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6.24-26, and the psalm goes on to show that “the consequence of a blessing to Israel is that the life-giving power of God will be known beyond Israel in the world” (Walter Bruggemann and William Bellinger, New Cambridge Bible Commentary: Psalms).
Our reading from Isaiah celebrates the twofold nature of God’s mercy, as he gathers the “outcasts of Israel” to himself and invites foreigners to “join themselves to the Lord” so that the Temple will become “a house of prayer for all peoples”. St Jerome explains that, in the light of Christ, we can recognise this “house of prayer” to be “the Church, which is distributed across the whole globe”.
The message of our epistle is that, in extending his mercy in Christ to all nations, God has “by no means” rejected his chosen people. As Paul writes, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” He describes an interplay of disobedience and mercy which leads on to the salvation of Jew and Gentile alike. “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”
“Does that mean that Paul thinks eventually Israel too will confess Jesus as Lord? That Israel will believe?” Beverly Roberts Gaventa warns readers against excessive speculation about Paul’s teaching on salvation. As she observes, it is unclear precisely how Paul would answer these questions. Indeed, his paean to the “unsearchable” and “inscrutable” wisdom of God in 11.22-36 suggests that “he knows that the answer remains hidden within God’s own unknowability.”
This has important implications for the Church today, as we reckon with the past — and present — realities of anti-Semitism. “What we see in Romans consistently is that Jews and Gentiles have differing histories with God, but all alike are subject to the powers of Sin and Death. Gentile (i.e., in our time, Christian) arrogance violates both our shared sinfulness and God’s history with Israel” (When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel According to Paul).
Our Gospel reading provides a startling counterpoint to these passages, with Jesus’s seemingly brusque dismissal of a Canaanite woman seeking deliverance for her daughter. Jesus initially gives no reply, and declares that he has “only come for the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Jesus’s reply to her heartfelt request, made kneeling in front of him, is to say that “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus celebrates the woman’s response, which combines great boldness with great humility. But it seems implausible to suggest that her words are what persuades Jesus to extend his ministry to embrace the Gentiles; for Matthew has already recounted at least one healing of a Gentile (there may have been more in chapter 4). It is the faith of a Roman centurion, also seeking healing for his child, which leads Jesus to declare that “many will come from east and west to recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus knows the heart of each person whom he encounters. So perhaps his treatment of the woman is designed to draw out her inner strength, encouraging her to be bold in claiming God’s blessing. St John Chrysostom suggests that Jesus “has put her off” so that he can “proclaim aloud” the greatness of her faith, and “crown” her with praise.
Jesus repeatedly urges his disciples to be bold in their petitions (Matthew 7.7, Luke 18.8), and commends the “faith” of those who are. As Shermara Fletcher argues, contemporary Christians often idealise a submissive spirituality that is at odds with the robust dialogue that we see in scripture. In the Canaanite woman, we see something of Abraham’s arguing and Jacob’s wrestling with the Lord (Genesis 18.16-33, 32.22-32).
Perhaps the truly surprising message of this passage is that Jesus cultivates this bold and courageous posture in a Gentile woman — and “crowns” her with praise as an exemplar of “faith”. In the words of our psalm, she, too, can “rejoice and be glad”, because God’s blessing of Israel has brought healing and salvation to her house.