Wednesday: 8 August, 2012 –– 18th Week in Ordinary Time
Feast Day of St Dominic
Jeremiah 31:1–7 / Matthew 15:21–28
Jesus On Vacation
Dominic was a mighty preacher. He urged the brothers to study constantly the Old and New Testaments. He always carried with him the Gospel according to Matthew and the epistles of Paul, and he almost knew them from memory.
One of the strong witnesses to the unique nature of Scripture is its unplumbable depth. As one would expect of God’s Word, the Bible can be read and re-read and studied, and yet never exhausted. This simple story in today’s Gospel illustrates that.
This section of Matthew’s Gospel reveals a peak of popularity for Jesus’s ministry. Wherever he goes the people follow and gather in the hope of benefitting from his mighty words and deeds. Jesus was almost continuously inundated by people. He seeks places and times of solitude, but the people keep following. So here we find Jesus going on vacation. It’s a wonderful picture of the humanity of our Lord. When we are physically weak and mentally on edge, we are much more susceptible to temptation and spiritual depression. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves spiritually is to take a vacation.
All of this can be read into what we are told in v21: At that time Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.... In his parallel account Mark tells us Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know it. Jesus went on vacation! Tyre was Gentile territory forty miles north-west of Capernaum. Jesus went to a place where people were not likely to recognize him, where a Jewish man would usually be ignored or even avoided. Isn't that the kind of place you want to go on vacation? Perhaps not everyone is like me, but I always want to go to some mountain cabin where I will not even see anyone else. I seldom get to do that, but I understand what Jesus was trying to do.
Yet Jesus could not keep his presence secret: A Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord...” I'm reading into the situation here a bit, but Jesus was the same person on vacation that he was in public ministry. Are you ever tempted to let your spiritual commitment take a vacation? We can rationalize and say things like: "I don't have to have my quiet time while I'm on vacation" or "No one here knows me, I can..." (the rest of this sentence depends on what is temptation for you). Jesus was on vacation, but he was still Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
So here was Jesus, in a place trying to find rest, but what actually comes is something of a test. How will Jesus respond to the request of a needy person while he's taking a break from ministry? The first thing Jesus does is give the woman a test. Is she sincere? It's also a test for Jesus himself. His primary work was to accomplish salvation in the context of God's Old Testament promises, and that meant ministry to and through Israel. The woman was asking something outside the parameters of what Jesus was doing at the time.
The exchange between Jesus and the woman is loaded with insinuation. When he says I was sent only to the lost sheep the house of Israel, Jesus is affirming his commitment to his primary task from the Father. He was not going to start a broader "ministry" in Gentile territory; that would be disobedience because it would detract from what he came to do. And yet we find that Jesus, even "on vacation," is still the loving and compassionate Savior of people who recognize him and their own need.
A common way for Jews to speak of Gentiles was with a derogatory connotation of “dog.” But when Jesus used the word dog, he did not use the common derogatory word, but a diminutive word meaning the pet of the family. The woman, picking up on the softer meaning, showed both her humility and her sincerity by accepting Jesus' word and reading a positive hope in it: even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters. She was not asking Jesus to change his commitment to what he was doing in and through Israel, but she did want an incidental blessing since he had come into her territory.
This story is a tremendous reminder that the response of one's heart ultimately qualifies one's relationship with God. The Son of God never refuses the heart-cry of a person who recognizes him in the context of his or her own need.
This story also gives us a model as we seek to follow Jesus and be like him. The Gospels show us a real Jesus. He was a man with the need to get away from demands and stress. He was also the Son of God, who would not say "No" to any needy person who turned to him. And everything he did was worthy of the word best.
We need to do two things in response. First, we need to recognize Jesus for who he is. When we do that, we cannot help but turn to him, admitting our need, our hurt and our sin. To those who come to him, Jesus turns no one away.
The second response flows out of the first. What we find when we give ourselves to Jesus is that he gives himself to us. And when Jesus comes to live in us through his Spirit he begins to change us so that we become like him. We're still human; we need to take vacations and such things to meet our human needs, but we do not take a vacation from Jesus. Instead, we take Jesus on vacation with us... and everywhere else we go.