“Foreigners who have attached themselves to the Lord, these I will bring to my holy mountain. I will make them joyful in my house of prayer.”
The words of the prophet Isaiah broke through the petty divisions of his day. The salvation that he proclaimed in the name of God was not for the children of Israel alone. It was for foreigners, for all peoples of good will. He foresaw a day on which the nations of the earth, in all their diversity, would be gathered together on the mountain of God’s presence.
Isaiah’s vision was all the more remarkable because it had emerged from a recent history of violence, destruction and alienation. The destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of her inhabitants had brought a nation to the point of extinction. The survivors who had returned to rebuild Jerusalem’s ruins had every reason to despise foreign powers, to seek security in an exclusivity that treated with suspicion the claims of any outsider. Isaiah’s vision of a God who calls foreigners to himself was all the more remarkable because it reached beyond the suspicions that carry within themselves the seeds of further violence.
In recent weeks the headlines have been filled with reports of violence and division that flow from our natural suspicion of the outsider. Cultural and religious differences have led to the carnage in Iraq, in Israel and Gaza, and throughout Africa. We are easily threatened by those whose ways are different from our own, and yet we claim to serve a God whose ways, in the words of Isaiah, are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts.
Ours is a God who understands us in our differences, and who longs to unite us in his love. Whilst we seek to support the victims of these many tragedies, let us look to ourselves. Is there a welcome in our hearts for those who are so very different from ourselves? Why is it that our judgments point so easily to our differences, rarely concentrating on our shared humanity and need? St Matthew’s account of the Canaanite woman who sought out Jesus pushed the boundaries of what was sociably acceptable in his day. The woman was a Canaanite, unacceptable both because she was a foreigner and from a different religious background. Furthermore she had transgressed the social convention that forbade women to approach unrelated men. Hers was a faith that reached beyond the convention. It was grounded both in her love for her daughter and her faith in the person of Jesus. She would not give up, until, reluctantly, the disciples brought her to Jesus.
“Take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.”
Jesus reminded her that his first responsibility was to the lost children of Israel. Her response showed that she had an instinctive understanding of the nature of God’s grace.
“Ah, yes, sir; but even house dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”
Perhaps this was the key to this puzzling exchange in which Jesus had seemed initially reluctant to grant what the woman had sought for her daughter. His reluctance prompted this woman to words that describe what all sinners have become. Through sin we become strangers in the presence of God. We can claim nothing from his love. We are like dogs that sit below the table. We know that we do not belong, and yet we cherish the hope that we shall be fed in the grace of his mercy. The Father continues to feed us, not with scraps that fall from the table, but with the presence of his Son.