03 Aug, Wednesday of Week 18

Num 13-14:passim. On hearing the scouts’ report the people grumble and are condemned to forty years of wandering in the desert.

Matt 15:21ff. When Jesus tries to discourage the Canaanite woman, she humbly persists and her faith is rewarded.

God’s transforming touch

The readings speak of hope, the quality of persevering despite bad reports and long delays, and God’s adjustment to our human responses. The Israelites gave up so quickly, but the Canaanite woman would not take No for an answer. Jeremiah would not revise his early message of hope for the northern tribes’ return, even when they slipped even further away into oblivion; the prophet repeats the same words which now look far beyond the exile of the southern tribes into the age of the new covenant. Just as the prophet adjusted to a new, even more sorrowful situation, so did the Lord manifest a willingness to work within a new context of Israel’s rebellion. The people are condemned to forty years of wandering, years that become a school of discipline in which the traditions of exodus and covenant could take root among them.

The scouts return with a glorious report about the land’s fertility and sweetness – a land flowing with milk and honey, and fruit so heavy that it took two men to carry a single bunch of grapes on a pole. But the scouts also told of giants and a heavily walled city guarded by a fierce and strong people, that made the Israelites lose heart. God does not push his people about; it was their own fear that condemned them to wandering in the desert.

Yet even this tortuous meandering back and forth put Israel through the paces of a strengthening process and developed the “desert spirituality” so beautifully expressed by Jeremiah: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how you loved me as a bride, following me in the desert, in a land unsown. Sacred to the Lord was Israel, the first fruits of his harvest” (Jer 2:2-3). These lines were composed by the young Jeremiah, probably about the time that he wrote the “Book of Consolation,” chaps. 30-31. The passage is powerfully used at the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The final phrase “virgin Israel” continues the nuptial theme, introduced into biblical tradition by the prophet Hosea. Applied to the exiled northern tribes as a young woman gloriously happy at the moment of her marriage, but it also envisages the miraculous transformation of the sinful adulterous woman Israel in her sins, into the “virgin daughter.” So hopeful is Jeremiah that he sees God’s achieving what is humanly impossible.

Jesus, too, is transformative. At first he would not even answer the Canaanite woman, when his disciples came up and begged entreat him to get rid of her. Then his first words to her sound very blunt, “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The world mission of the church was not yet clearly envisioned. Yet there are hints that he perceived a vision beyond the horizon of his words. Jesus’ non-verbal commentary indicates just as much right here. First, his silence may be interpreted as an unwillingness to reject her request. Then we find that he could not simply walk away from the woman but talked with her till she wore down his defenses. Finally, by his affirmative response to her plea, Jesus steps beyond his verbal statement into the future outreach of the church, which is so gloriously expressed in the theology of Paul.

First Reading: Numbers 13:1-2, 25; 14:1, 26-29, 34-35

The Lord said to Moses, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites; from each of their ancestral tribes you shall send a man, every one a leader among them.” And at the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night.

And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me? I have heard the complaints of the Israelites, which they complain against me. Say to them, “As I live,” says the Lord, “I will do to you the very things I heard you say: your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness; and of all your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upward, who have complained against me. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.” I the Lord have spoken; surely I will do thus to all this wicked congregation gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.

Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

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