I Thess. 4:1-8
In today’s Gospel we see something strange to our way of thinking, as modern Westerners long accustomed to thinking of Christianity as universal, perhaps even as democratic in the classic sense, maybe as egalitarian to some degree, or, at the very least, as polite. We see Jesus appear unwilling to help this Gentile woman until she humbly acknowledges that she, not being Jewish, is like a dog asking for scraps that fall from the Israelite table.
It seems even more strange after the Morning Prayer lesson from I Kings in which Solomon asks God to grant the prayers of the stranger who comes and prays in the Temple, having heard of God’s great Name, that all the world may know that there is only one God. It seems strange when we remember that Jesus had angered the people of His hometown by saying that they would reject Him, but that as Elijah was sent to a Gentile widow, and as Elisha had cured the leper Naaman, from Syria, His own ministry would benefit even the Gentiles who would trust Him.
The story of Naaman is very dramatic, and a lot like this story. The Syrian General, who had been Israel’s enemy, came to be healed by the prophet Elisha. By the grace of God, he was healed, but not before humbling himself and accepting the one demand that the prophet made; that he wash himself in the Jordan river (and what do we learn from this? Naaman’s mikvah, his cleansing, in the River Jordan signifies that some day the Gentiles would be able to enter into the covenant by baptism). The prophet did not even bother to come meet this very important man, but simply sent a messenger. At first Naaman was angry and started to leave in a huff, but his friends reasoned with him. Like this woman we read of today, he had to humble himself in order to receive a gift from God.
Of course, Jesus did grant her request, and before He was finished, He commended her for her faith. But why did He put her through it? What point was He making?
The point has everything to do with the Covenant, specifically the Covenant that God made with Abraham. Abraham is the father of the people of Israel, which means, as St. Paul would write, that he was the father of all who have faith in the true and Living God, the true God Who is known only by the revelation of Himself. Out of that Covenant came the other Covenants, the Covenant of Sinai, when the Law was given to the people who were freed from slavery in Egypt, and the Covenant of the Kingdom made with David. These grew out of the Covenant that God made with Abram, when he was yet uncircumcised, that is when he was still a Gentile named Abram, and had not yet become Abraham, circumcised and the father of Isaac, and thereby the father of a multitude.
The last Covenant to grow out of the Covenant of promise to Abraham was the Covenant that Jesus Christ would make, the New Covenant, the B’rit Hadashah, prophesied of by Jeremiah:
"Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a New Covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which My covenant they brake, though I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my Law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying Know the LORD: For they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, saith the LORD: For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jer. 31: 31-34)."
In a few minutes we will hear the words of Jesus: "This is My Blood of the New Testament, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sin." The disciples at the Last Supper knew what He was referring to, for they knew these words of the prophet Jeremiah about the New Covenant.
But, before proceeding with what we can say about that, we need to see that the Gentile woman who came to Jesus was not included in the Covenants of God made with Israel. She was, to use the words of Isaiah, from the 57th chapter of his book, one who was "afar off." St. Paul described the situation of the entire Gentile world in these words: "Wherefore remember that ye being in time past Gentiles...at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world..." He concludes, "But now, in Christ Jesus, ye who sometimes were afar off are made nigh by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2: 11-13)."
Our Lord helped the woman, and granted her prayer, as she was the stranger coming to the One Who was greater than the temple, and was making her prayer of the One true God, the only God in all the earth (I Kings 8:41-43). But, first He made clear the truth, and it was for her to accept it in humility. She was an outsider, and was not requesting something to which she was entitled; she was not one of the children. Understand, that her faith changed this, as faith did for the centurion whose servant was healed. Foretold in that ancient story of Naaman is the truth of what happens when one who is “afar off” has faith. When Jesus commended this woman’s faith, He was not simply granting her request, but acknowledging her as a daughter of Abraham, a Gentile no longer.
This is lost on many people who cannot understand the words of this woman, when she spoke with humility. Against the warning of St. Paul they "boast against the root" that bears them, that is against the Jewish heritage of the Church by which all Christians are made children of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ. They presume, they boast, and think that God is a modern egalitarian Who accepts everyone and everything as six of one and half a dozen of the other. We are very comfortable hearing about the New Covenant, and the forgiveness of sins, but what does it all entail? What do we need to be asking and learning?
Is the New Covenant made with all mankind? We know that there is only one God, and that Jesus would send His disciples on the mission, the true mission of Israel, to be the light of the world, a light to the nations. "Go and make disciples of all nations," He would tell them, after His resurrection, "baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." (Matt. 28: 19,20) So, it seems that the Covenant is with all mankind equally- right? Wrong.
Look again at the words that Jeremiah spoke, to which Jesus clearly alluded, by speaking of the New Covenant. Jeremiah said that the New Covenant is with the house of Israel; it is not made with the nations. It is part of the Covenant of Promise made with Abraham. The only people with whom God made the New Covenant are the Israelites, not the Gentiles. If you understand that, you must then begin to understand why the Great Commission is given with these provisions and conditions: The disciples from all nations must be baptized in the Name of God, the Trinitarian Name; and they must be taught to live by all of Christ’s commandments.
The New Covenant brings with it the Law written on the human heart, the forgiveness of sins, and the knowledge of God. The people who enter into it by baptism, and who have faith in Jesus Christ, are not Gentiles; Christians are not called Gentiles; rather St. Paul says "ye were Gentiles in time past." He writes to the Roman Christians that they have been grafted into the tree of Abraham. He tells the Ephesians and the Corinthians that they were Gentiles (past tense), and that when they used to be Gentiles they were led astray by dumb idols. But, now, in Christ, they have been brought near by the Blood of the Messiah, the Blood of the New Covenant and the forgiveness of sins.
The Law is written on our hearts, which is the work of the Holy Spirit. We read it and learn it; but more than simply that, it is within us on a deep level of conscience that is unknown to unbelievers. For we know not only the Law of Christ- about which more needs to be said- we know the One Who gives it. We know and love the Lawgiver; we are personally affected by His great act of love when we think of the cross of His Passion. We know what it means that we are bought with a price, that is, His blood. His Spirit is within us, and we have a conscience quick to feel, which we could not have otherwise. This is the meaning of the Epistle reading for this day, St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Thessalonians: "This is the will of God, even your sanctification."
In Lent we are reminded of this portion of the New Covenant in a special way, not to be forgotten the rest of the year; that the Holy Spirit writes the Law on our hearts, and that we know God in a manner that makes our consciences grieve when we sin against Him; and that convicts our consciences to live in a way that pleases Him. For, having entered into the New Covenant, and having been made a part of Israel by faith, we are given that Law as our guide, we are given the forgiveness of sin, and we know the Lord. The words of Isaiah are true for us: "The Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Lawgiver, the Lord is our king, He is our Salvation." (Isaiah 33:22)
The message of the Church to God’s ancient people of Israel is, "the temple is here, the sacrifice is here, the Messiah Whom we know will come again; this is your heritage as children of Abraham, born to live under the New Covenant." Our message to the whole world, and its many nations which, to this day, worship many false gods, is, "there is no God in all the earth but in Israel; We know Him through Jesus Christ."
And now unto God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion, power and glory henceforth world without end. Amen.