The world would be an ideal place to inhabit if everyone were the same. But they aren’t. That’s why our sacred authors frequently have to deal with those “others:” individuals who don’t fit the mold in which we were either created or later became. How are we to relate to people who don’t share our ethnic or cultural background or even our beliefs?
Our biblical prophets often have to deal with the fact that most people on this planet aren’t Jews. If God only entered into the Sinai covenant with Israelites, does that mean Yahweh has nothing to do with Gentiles? Are they totally “on their own?” Do they have to depend solely on their own gods and goddesses? Most pre-exilic prophets presume that’s the case. But such an easy to understand theological opinion goes out the biblical window once Deutero-Isaiah insists on strict monotheism in the 6th century BCE. After the Babylonian Exile Jews are forced to presume Yahweh’s everyone’s God.
Third-Isaiah, the author of today’s first reading, deals with that new insight. Active in the first part of the 5th century BCE, this prophet is not only encouraging those Jews still in Babylon to return to the Promised Land and rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, he’s also insisting they look at that task through new eyes. Yahweh’s now inviting non-Jews to be part of a covenant originally entered into with only Jews. “The foreigners who join themselves to Yahweh . . . and hold to my covenant, them will I bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer: . . . for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Many in the prophet’s audience probably went home muttering, “There goes the neighborhood.”
Matthew’s Jewish/Christian community faced a similar problem: the entry of Gentiles into the church as Gentiles. These non-Jewish converts weren’t being burdened with the 613 Laws of Moses which all Jewish/Christians were committed to keep. What were these Johnnies-come-lately actually obligated to do? Today’s pericope supplies one answer: simply have faith in Jesus.
A Canaanite woman in first century CE Palestine would parallel a Palestinian in 21st century Israel; not the most welcome individual in that particular place. Canaanites are the remnant of the people the Israelites conquered when they invaded Canaan eleven centuries before. Though Matthew “waters down” the narrative he copies from Mark, his Jesus still implicitly calls the woman by a title many of his fellow Jews employed for such undesirables: a dog.
Unlike Mark, Matthew turns the encounter into a test of faith. The line we always remember is the last thing Jesus says: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Though Gentile/Christians don’t have to worry about eating pork, keeping the Sabbath, or being circumcised, they’re still expected to have the same faith in the risen Jesus present and working in their lives as Jewish/Christians have; the one essential for all other Christs.
It seems Jesus’ earliest followers hadn’t written off evangelizing Gentiles. They simply planned to first convert all their fellow Jews, then begin missions to non-Jews. Paul, seeing such a plan wasn’t working, came up with a different one. As we hear in today’s Romans passage, he was convinced that by bringing Gentiles to the faith first, their fulfilled and loving lives would make Jews so jealous they’d be crazy not to become Christians.
Of course, that plan didn’t work either. The Apostle couldn’t have foreseen how many Gentile/Christians would eventually integrate anti-Jewish practices into their faith. Considering the Inquisition and Holocaust, no wonder Jewish converts are so rare. Whatever happened to Third-Isaiah’s “house of prayer for all peoples” dream?”