A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

Archive for August, 2014

The lady gets the last word

The fact of the matter is that we often tend to operate in sterotypes when judging other people.   As mixed metaphors would have it,   “People sometimes paint with a wide brush.”   Also, because of our cultural presuppositions, we sometimes place people “in a box.”  This pre-judgement occurs when folks seem to act “differently.”

In the Gospel for the twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matthew 15:21-28), the disciples take notice of a non-Jewish woman asking Jesus for a miracle.  She wants her daughter healed from demonic torment.  Most likely because she is a foreigner, the disciples see her as a “crazy lady,” thus putting her “in a box,” and ask Jesus to send her away.

But the lady is persistent.  However, Jesus remains silent and quite likely gives thought to the particular situation.  “Perhaps,” he possibly thinks, “this would be a good time to teach everyone a lesson.”  Then begins a sort of verbal fencing between Jesus and the woman.

Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Namely, those Jews who have lapsed in their faith system.  The woman again pleas for help hoping that that gesture would appeal to Jesus’ compassion.  Curiously, Jesus repeats his earlier statement of coming only to help the Jews,  but uses a different image.  From shepherding to a meal.

“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”  The intent of this comment was that Jesus’ ministry was intended for the Jews and not the Gentiles.  Then comes the zinger.  The Canaanite woman quickly replies, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat  the scraps that fall from the tables of their masters.”

Wow!  Jesus had no recourse to push his earlier point.  The lady had the last word.  In fact,  Jesus was so impressed that he declared, “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done to you as you wish.”  And the miracle took place.

The woman got the last word because of her faith.  Why was this so?  Even in spite of her alien status, she truly believed in the power of Jesus.  No doubt this faith developed because of what she had seen and heard about Jesus.

Undoubtedly we can learn something from the above Gospel.  It seems to me that one of the key concepts would be the virtue of persistence.  Persistence really means that one does not easily take “no” for an answer.  There are several examples of this.  For instance,  there is prayer.  We usually pray to God when we want something.  The answer may be “no” or “maybe.”  However, reflecting on this answer we maintain our persistence and ask again.  We have hope.  Perhaps a miracle might happen.

Remember that the woman was a Canaanite, a non-Jew, not one of the “chosen people.”  And because of her belief in Jesus she must have felt like an outsider.  No doubt it was this belief in Jesus that eventually led to a miracle.  Persistence often leads to Hope.  In spite of being placed “in a box” by the disciples, she persisted in her request and got what asked for.  Not a bad outcome for one having the last word.


An interesting way to meet God.

The fact was,  Elijah was running for his life.  He thought the desert would be a good place to hide.  Blowing winds could easily cover footprints in the sand.  Finally,  he came across a cave in a nearby mountain which would be an ideal hiding place.  After all, he was mortally  threatened while being chased by the evil queen Jezebel for what he had done on Mount Carmel.

The first reading from the 19th Sunday in Ordinary time (I Kings 19:9-13) tells us not only about Elijah’s escape from Queen Jezebel, but also of the interesting way in which he ecountered God–the focus of our attention.

While Elijah is in the cave he hears God’s voice telling him to go outside the cave because “the Lord will be passing by.”  As he steps outside, a curious set of events takes place. For instance, a great and strong wind passes by breaking rocks into pieces, and splitting mountains.  But the Lord was NOT in the strong wind.

Next, there came an earthquake.  But the Lord was NOT in the earthquake.  Then, there came fire.  But the Lord was NOT in the fire.  Finally, there was “tiny whispering sound.”  And thus the Lord revealed himself to Elijah in a moment of quiet.  It was in this moment of quiet that the Lord revealed himself to Elijah and commented to him his future ministry.

I find it curious that here is presented a contrast between noise and quiet each as a locus of divine revelation.  Normally, thunder, lightning, earthquake and fire were the usual ways in which the presence of the divinity was announced–much as a blare of trumpets announced the presence of royalty.  Consequently,  in this narrative we note that divine presence can just as well be the quiet moment.

What is also curious is the subtle comparison between Elijah and Moses in the way each encounters God.  First of all, both go to the same mountain.  Elijah to Horeb (one tradition)  and Moses to Sinai (another tradition).  The “mountain” was often considered the place of encounter between the human and the divine.  Something special would occur there.  Moses received the Law/Commandments on Sinai, and Elijah received further instruction regarding his ministry on Horeb.

Secondly, it is within the context of the mountain that Moses and Elijah encounter God.  Moses and the burning bush (though the text names the mountain “Horeb”–Exodus 3:1) and Elijah and the “still small voice.”  What are we to make of this type of parallelism?  I suspect that encounter with the deity, near a sacred mountain, suggests that something special is to happen to a leader of the people.  And if the experience of the encounter  takes place accompanied by overt natural elements, or in the midst of quietness, the effect is the same.  That is, the chosen leader is given a significant ministry to follow.

Given this reading for reflection, what are some practical lessons that we can learn?  First of all,  Elijah went to a mountain in an attempt to save his life.  Secondly, there he encountered God in a moment of quiet.  A question that I must ask myself is, where (or what) is my mountain?  My meeting God does not necessarily have to be public, but it can be quiet.  A milieu that may match my personality.  Quite likely, the reflection of that divine encounter may clarify for me my ministry to others, namely, treating them with justice, compassion, forgiveness, dignity, and forgiveness.

So it is, with a combination of “mountain,” “meeting,” and “ministry” I would be in a good position to be of service to others.




Do you have a heart filled with pity?

Many of us have felt the experience of the death of a family member.  This can be a devastating moment in our lives because the emotions tend to  run raw, and it seems as if the feelings take over our decision making.  In fact, we can easily discover that emotions appear to dominate the motivation of our behavior–either for good or for evil.

In the Gospel for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matthew 14:13-21) Jesus becomes aware of the death of his cousin John the Baptist.  No doubt that they were close.  So, burdened by the feelings of loss, Jesus goes away to a quiet place presumably to give vent to his emotions.  Undoubtedly, he went to pray.

But many people from surrounding villages  followed him–even to his place of  “quiet.” The Gospel tells us that when Jesus became aware of so many people,  his “heart was moved with pity.”  Most likely that emotion was caused by the earlier news of the death of John the Baptist.  Sensitivity makes one very aware not only  of one’s own feelings, but also the feelings of others.  Thus, while experiencing this emotion of “pity, ” he healed many sick people.

But something more surprising followed.  Due to his sensitive disposition, Jesus noted that the people were hungry.  The disciples suggested that the folks go into town and buy something to eat.  In effect, Jesus said “No!  You give them something to eat.”  Almost apologetically, the disciples said, “All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish.  What is that among so many?”  Jesus finally said, “Bring to me what you have.”

Then, in a ritual form, which is currently used at the consecration of Mass, Jesus (1)-looked up to heaven, (2)-said the blessing, (3)-broke the bread, and (4)-and gave the food to the disciples to give to the people.  All the people were adequately fed and there were several baskets of  food left over.

It may be safe to say that Jesus, because his heart was moved with pity at the hunger of those present,  performed a miracle–the multiplication of the loaves and fish.

What can we learn from this Gospel?  First of all, we can learn that emotions play a large part in our dealing with other people.   It makes us more aware of their needs.   If our hearts are “moved with pity,” because of their suffering, then we respond positively.  In the face of injustice  we proclaim justice.  In the face of hostility we proclaim compassion.  Who knows?  Perhaps because of our feelings of  justice and compassion, a mireacle could well occur.

Secondly, if we felt sad or burdened because of some tragedy, Jesus would often see us with a “heart moved with pity” and he would take care of us.  In our dealings with others, we should confront them as if our “hearts were moved with pity,” so that we could see them as meriting our love and concern.

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