By Father James Rodriguez
Two weeks ago, we climbed the mountain with Jesus and His Apostles, basking in the sweet light of His transfigured face, surrounded by Moses and Elijah. Last week, we returned to the mountain amidst thunder and wind. At Elijah’s side, shuddering with holy fear before the God Who lovingly stoops down to His children, we heard the Voice in the stillness.
This weekend’s first reading from Isaiah takes up, yet again, the image of the mountain. The prophet reveals it to be the very destiny of all the faithful, with language that clearly evokes visions of the ancient Temple as well as the Church that is born from the pierced side of the Crucified Christ.
Sin and Consequences
Isaiah speaks of the holy mountain as a house of prayer in which sacrifice is offered on the altar. Faithful Jews who first heard these words would have been familiar with the imagery of animal sacrifice made in atonement of human sin. They knew that sin has consequences. So the animal they offered depended on the type of sin committed. Already there was a sense of distinction between what we would call mortal and venial sins, and a type of confession in which people recognized sin before God through His priest. They would be appalled by people today who claim to believe in, and yet refuse, sacramental confession.
It was to these religious-minded people that Isaiah, or rather God through Isaiah, promised salvation on the mountaintop. It was here, mere centuries later, where the true and eternal Priest would offer the sacrifice of Himself, taking away the need for animal sacrifice, and freeing us from sinfulness. His death on the Cross in that fundamental and free act of love for humanity was the fulfillment of the promise made through Isaiah.
The Ends of the Earth
Because of the universal nature of this sacrifice, and His command to evangelize, we in Brooklyn and Queens have heard the proclamation of the Gospel and can joyfully sing along with today’s psalmist: “O God, let all the nations praise you!” The explosion of grace that took place on that Friday that was Good, just outside Jerusalem’s walls, continues to radiate to the ends of the earth, inspiring people of all walks of life. Indeed, there are no limits to the reach of the Gospel, save for those we impose whenever we close our hearts to grace.
God gives us the freedom to obey Him or turn away, rejecting His love. St. Paul speaks of this in today’s second reading. He reminds us that even this disobedience can be used by God to shake us out of our complacency through His free gift of mercy. As a priest of nine years, I still cannot help but be humbled whenever a person, unworthy like me, experiences this gift, and leaves the confessional knowing for certain that God Himself loves them despite their fear that they were beyond the reach of His fatherly arms.
As any father worth the name, God sometimes challenges us in order to help us grow. Such is the case in today’s Gospel. Usually, there is a parable for us to consider, or a straightforward message in the Lord’s preaching or miracles. But today we are the silent observers of a powerful conversation. On the surface, there appears to be opposition, even unwillingness on the Lord’s part to help the plaintive Canaanite woman, only to change His mind due to her insistence.
However, as St. Teresa reminds us, “God never changes.” Taking a deeper look, we notice the woman approaches Jesus with faith. She is not offended when He reminds her of the predilection of the Jews in the order of salvation. Her persistence is an example to us all, and His challenge drew her into a deeper relationship.
Jesus appears to ignore her at first, but the people He actually ignores are the disciples who tell Him to send her away. Simply put, He was neither rejecting nor insulting her. His mind was not changed by her persistence. Rather, she was drawn in deeper every time she asked for something and appeared not to get it.
We sometimes feel rejected in prayer. Yet if we pray in humble faith, we begin to bring our will more in line with the Father’s. And Jesus responds with words He may well have learned from His mother: “Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 56: 1, 6-7
Psalm 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8
Romans 11: 13-15, 29-32
Matthew 15: 21-28
Father Rodriguez ministers full time with Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, and lives in residence at Blessed Sacrament parish in Jackson Heights.