A pleading mother. A focused Savior. A faith that can change directions a little sooner than anticipated.
We have the many women who approach Jesus in the Gospels, or are connected to the Lord in some way. There was the woman who was hemorrhaging for years and years, who just wanted to touch the garment of Jesus. The woman at the well, who Jesus converts by shifting her thirst from water to him. The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with oil – that Judas gets angry at for not selling the costly perfume and donating the proceeds to the poor, like he really cared – and wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. Her hair must have smelled like spring lilacs for an awful long time. A nice, intimate connection; her hair smelling the same as the body of Christ about to be offered on the altar of the Cross for the salvation of the world. Mary Magdalene; who was graced with being the first witness to the Resurrection in John’s Gospel. And, who was a faithful disciple until the end. There’s Martha and Mary; friends of Jesus who welcomed the Lord into their home, along with meeting him outside the grave of their brother named Lazarus. And let us not forget Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, whose barrenness later in life became fruitful because of her faith in God. And, the dearest and most holy of all women whose names are mentioned in the Gospels, the one assumed into heaven and the tabernacle of the Savior, the God-Bearer, Mary. The first of all Mary’s.
You have to love the many women who approach, serve, walk with, plead with, and give birth to Jesus in the Gospels. Let’s make it a women’s Gospel Sunday! I’m sure you men don’t mind, do you? Be careful how you answer!
But there’s something about this Canaanite woman who pleads and begs Jesus for the good health of her daughter who is ill. This is the only time she appears in the sacred writings. But this one appearance is magnificent. It’s magnificent for us, because of what she teaches us. She also, like Jesus, is a good teacher.
Now folks, especially the ladies, if you approached someone who you knew without question could return good health back to your ill daughter or son, and that person told you it’s not right to take the food of the children and feed it to the dogs, would you continue to plead your case with that person? Or, would you rather just hit them over the head with a cast iron frying pan?
The Canaanite woman: don’t take this the wrong way, but she’s the pit bull here. She’s a gentle, persistent pit bull who will not let go of her Divine Helper. And that’s exactly what God wants! He does not want us giving up on his words and ways. Even though they may seem very harsh at times. There’s too much giving up today. Much of it a result of anger, pride, or inflated self-importance. Individualism will crush a person’s faith. It will destroy it, chew it up and spit it out. God loves to be bitten by us, where, no matter what the response or reaction by Jesus to the Canaanite woman’s plea for help, we stay with the faith. We stay physically, as she does, and spiritually, as she does.
Each one of these women in the Gospels I mentioned, they all have something spiritual and Christian to teach us. Elizabeth; the importance of accepting visitors as she accepts a pregnant Mary. Mary, the sister of Martha; the importance of having a contemplative side of our faith by sitting with Christ, especially in the reading of his word and adoration in his Eucharistic presence. The Samaritan woman at the well; the importance of allowing Jesus to form us and shape our beliefs, rather than the world misinforming and misshaping our beliefs. Mary Magdalene; follow Jesus no matter what, even if you think he’s dead. Loitering at Jesus’ grave pays dividends.
And the Canaanite woman; who goes above and beyond the apparent slight by Jesus – who came for the house of Israel, not Canaanites – and she gives Jesus the one answer he can’t refuse. Instead of giving in to the deadly sin of anger, where nothing good or life-changing will happen, she rolls with the heavenly punches and forces the Lord’s hand. She puts Jesus in a place that demands his fidelity, house of Israel or not.
Has God ever slighted us? Has he ever slighted you personally, where you just want to go into an act of road rage? “Don’t get angry,” says the Canaanite woman. Keep driving and force God’s hand because deep within we know he loves us. Just look at the Cross.
And one last thought about the Canaanite woman; we can vote her Mother of the Year. I’m sure our Blessed Mother won’t mind. She turns heaven on its head in order to get the cure she wants for her daughter. Her persistence is angelic. Her motherly love is touching. Her love for Jesus is unconditional, like his for her. And her faith is unwavering.
Sometimes being a gentle pit bull has its advantages. Have no fear about bringing that attitude to bear on our faith.
We celebrate this week the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary into heaven on Friday, August 15, a Holy Day for all Catholics. Masses will be held on Thursday, August 14 at 5:30 p.m. and Friday, August 15 at 8:00 a.m.
It’s not difficult for us at all to project human ways and limitations onto the Almighty and living God. In such ways where God may be seen in the light of weakness, or non-conforming to our ways, or being blind or deaf, or, dare I say, uncaring or unconcerned.
Like St. Teresa of Avila wrote a few hundred years ago, what we expect in how God relates to us is the term “ready cash in hand.” No credit cards from God do we want, where payment can be made at a later date. Cash right now! No checks where we have to travel all the way to the bank to exchange a signed piece of paper from God for “cash in hand.” And certainly no IOU’s from the Almighty, where payment may or may not take place. How many IOU’s over the course of human history have gone unpaid? The answer is, “many.” I remember fondly and all too well one of my brothers asking me more than once, “Can I borrow five bucks? I’ll pay you back tomorrow.” Tomorrow would arrive with half doubt and half anticipation on my part, and of course he was nowhere to be seen. You would have thought he moved to Jupiter he was so far away from me on that day called “tomorrow.”
Be that as it may, as Scripture so wonderfully and poetically and realistically says, “God’s ways are not our ways.” And to that I say, “Thanks be to God.”
Our readings on this Sunday in August are readings that grant us the insight that God is far above and beyond our expectations and images. And that God is also, at certain moments in time, well below and underneath our expectations and images. It would not be fair to say that our Lord is only “above” us in how he relates to us. That God is God and we are not. True enough. But our Lord is also intentionally “below” our wants and desires so that we may be raised up from our sinful condition.
After all, Jesus emptied himself and took on the form of a slave, as St. Paul writes in Philippians. He lowered himself to earth in order to raise us to heaven. And this image of God is so essential for our spirituality, and coming to accept and recognize the movements of the Almighty in our lives.
In today’s 1st reading, God is not in the wind, the fire, or the earthquake, where we would expect his power to lie. Every time it seems there’s a hurricane, tornado, tsunami, typhoon, mudslide, earthquake, or forest fire that may or may not destroy many homes in its path, it seems the name of God is pronounced in one way or another. Many images of God result from catastrophe, from life saver to condemner. “I thank God my life was spared.” Or, “God is angry, thus the destroying tornado.” Or, “God is replanting and recreating by way of the forest fire.” God is this and God is that. And God just may be this or that. But all such statements reveal our human way of explaining God’s role in natural disasters and life in general. And why would we call them “natural” disasters if God is causing them?
But here in the 1st Book of Kings, God is a tiny whispering sound. Now, if a tiny whispering sound occurs in our lives, do we see the Lord as trying to wake us up a little? Or, is the Lord found only in the loud and destructive? Is it only the loud and destructive that gets our attention of God, like the Apostles in the boat? Or, was the consistent whispering of God not heard before that earthquake in our lives? Where God was speaking all along. Elijah is not fooled by God. He recognizes that God is not only “above” in the loud events of life, but that the Lord is “below” in a soft sound. A sound that is pleasing on the ears and pleasing to the human heart. Being a Prophet has its advantages.
In the Gospel, there is much in the way of the unexpected going on here. A short stroll on the Sea of Galilee by Jesus. It’s not everyday someone walks on water. An even shorter stroll by the no longer brave and trusting Peter before he begins to sink into the shark’s mouth. Jesus calming the storm by way of words. Most unexpected! When did nature take on ears? Next time you’re doing something you enjoy outdoors and it begins to rain, putting a damper on your enjoyable activity, tell it to stop raining! Let me know what happens. I’m deeply curious. Much in the way of unexpected in this Gospel.
So Jesus sends away the Disciples. “Go to the other side,” he says. “I’ll meet you over there.” Fine enough. They head out, some of them being very experienced on the water in their former capacity as fulltime fishermen. They are really comfortable on the water in a boat. It’s second nature for many of them. They’re in a good place, traveling to the other side. Then, all of a sudden, as can happen on the Sea of Galilee because of the geography, a storm of mammoth proportions is upon them. Their experience as fishermen is made useless. They are totally and completely at the mercy of…the storm. Or, are they at the mercy of God? It cannot be both. A storm cannot replace God when it comes to mercy.
Then the unexpected. The tiny whispering sound that says, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” The Voice from below. This is not Jesus’s Baptism or the Transfiguration where the Voice is heard from above. This is the “below” Voice. The Divine is heard in the whispering voice of Jesus, not in the battering storm. The storm is “natural.” It is the result of a change in climate. But Jesus goes below the storm, below our storms, underneath the rain and clouds in the most unpredictable and unexpected way, enters the boat, and settles the storm and their fears.
God is below is us. Thanks be to God. Yes, God is above us also. He is God and we are not. But God is below us. He is always offering ready cash in hand. Sometimes in our lives we just need to reach down for the handoff, where the quiet and solitude is found.
Expectations and images of God. They are realized not only in the loud events of our lives. God is also beneath us, below us, under us, serving us. How can he not when he is the God of humility and unconditional love.
If there were only 5 loaves and 2 fish in the Riley house at supper time on any given day, then Jesus’ miracle of multiplication would have been necessary to satisfy the many hunger pains in that house.
This week’s Gospel is a pastoral setting. The pastoral, peaceful setting is created and made possible by Jesus alone. The disciples wish to send away the crowd. They have no confidence or faith that they can somehow multiply and satisfy the hunger pains of thousands of people. The disciples are still children in their ministry, who will later become adults in their ministry after Jesus completes his mission and purpose.
If this situation of addressing the hunger of so many were to rest on the shoulders of the disciples, then the crowd would have dispersed in a thousand different directions, searching for food where it could be found, probably with a few fistfights occurring along the way. 5000 hungry men, not counting women and children, is a recipe for the worst night out on the town. A few brawls, or a few hundred brawls, most likely would have happened if the disciples got their wish of “sending them away.”
Instead, Jesus, and at this point only Jesus, turns a potential brawl or two into a pastoral, peaceful setting. This is what the Lord does. His associates are learning the methods of securing internal peace from the Master.
This pastoral scene of feeding is one that points to heaven. The feeding of the thousands – the hungry thousands- is a shadow of heaven. This Gospel is what we have to look forward to. It’s good for us to allow ourselves to welcome any situation into our lives that takes us beyond the natural world of events. It could be at the deathbed of a loved one, where all of a sudden, unexpectedly, they say or do something out of the ordinary. Something that deepens our faith in what awaits us as a result of Jesus’ victory on the Cross. Or, it may be something that our children say or do, where the presence of the Spirit in them is so openly reflected in the innocence of their youth. Their words or their actions point to a bright future, and your parental satisfaction is bursting with joy.
If we look at this Gospel through the eyes of Jesus rather than our own eyes, we would see some pretty spectacular events taking place here. Events that point to the Kingdom of Heaven. Events that fit perfectly with the parables we’ve listened to over the past few weeks. Events of growth. Events that are far above and beyond satisfying stomachs. Events that reveal the eternal peace we are all journeying towards.
First, in the eyes of Jesus, there is just no way that this crowd is going to be sent away. 0%. It would be like saying, “Okay, all of you good people can leave Mass right now! Have a nice day!” Do you think the Bishop would receive a letter or two? “Fr. Riley did what?” And if Jesus, by chance, let the crowds go away hungry, his heavenly Father probably would have received a letter or two in the form of a prayer. “Why didn’t your Son feed us? He performs all these miracles, but he can’t provide a little manna from heaven?” Or better yet, “Why didn’t your Son keep us together as one? Why did we have to disperse in a thousand different directions and end up brawling with my brothers and sister? While the children were frightened?”
In the eyes of Jesus, instead of sending them away too soon, instead of being sent away fractured and frustrated, our Lord’s way is unity; being together as one; eating the loaves and fish as one; in political speak, Jesus is solidifying his base, which is the entire human race. We are meant to be one in faith. And we are to work towards that oneness in our lives, for it is the vision of Christ.
Second, to see this peaceful pastoral setting through the eyes of Jesus is to see the great potential for sharing, and the infinite amount of good that comes from sharing. Instead of dispersing and brawling, Jesus gathers and creates a setting where sharing and caring for one another is present.
If you’re out on the town eating somewhere, which some of you may be doing tonight/today, over the years how many times have you shared some of your food? You probably can’t remember how many times. There may be a few crazy people who are possessive with their food, like I am at Wright’s Chicken Farm: “Don’t bother me while I’m eating!” But the gathering together as one, in the eyes of the Lord, creates the greatest potential for sharing. And may we never underestimate the power of that virtue, for all sharing begins with God sharing himself with us.
And third, in the eyes of our Lord, to grow this Gospel to its fullest stature like the mustard seed grows into a tall bush where the birds of the air hang out, what we see is the Kingdom of Heaven. Except, this is no parable. This is a real setting and event. The gathering as one, the sitting and reclining on green grass, the eating and sharing to our heart’s content, when fully grown and matured, is what God has prepared for us from the foundation of the world. And Jesus sees this. He sees, in his eternal vision, the reward of those who love him and follow him like this crowd. He sees death destroyed in this crowd. He sees a place of peace for us and never war. He sees eternal joy and the removal of all sadness in that crowd. He sees the very purpose of his mission in us.
This is why he could never send them away hungry. This is why he could never send them away for any reason. And this is why we are to encounter the world, not through our own vision, but through the eyes of Christ. For when we do, we transform the world.