Is 56:1,6-7 • Rom 11:13-15,29-32 • Mt 15:21-28
David Maxwell, the executive editor of Geneva Press and a blog called “The Thoughtful Christian,” wrote a reflection on our passage from Isaiah in the commentary Feasting on the Word. He reflects:
“Disaster recovery is a messy business, as we have seen in the United States and other countries devastated by war, natural disasters and forced migration. Who makes decisions? How are land grabbers and those who profit from disaster recovery controlled? Whom can you trust when a ruptured social network is not yet repaired? You no longer know the people next door, because the ex-neighbors stayed with their uncle in another town and did not return. Instead, they gave the keys to their strange-looking nephew who is now occupying the house next door and playing loud music. Perhaps most importantly, who belongs and who does not? Can there be justice for all, and can community be re-created after such a tragedy?”
The majority of Americans would not understand what it means to be forced from homes because of violence, social upheaval, war or religious persecution, so it is hard for us to understand the plight of the Jews in exile in Babylon, their return to Jerusalem, and the fate of those who were living in Jerusalem at the time of the return. However, to approach some understanding of the exile, we have only to look at the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina forced a massive migration out of New Orleans and its parishes. Many were lucky enough to have places to go. Many were not so lucky and suffered in emergency camps and housing as rebuilding was slow. Many who left never returned. Some who waited a few years before returning expected life in New Orleans to be like pre-Katrina times. What they discovered and what has made adjusting difficult is the reality that pre-Katrina New Orleans no longer exists.
Our passage from Isaiah was written after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon. Nothing was as it used it be. The struggle was to discover how to be a people united in God once more. There was a collision in Jerusalem between Jews who lived too far from Jerusalem to have been exiled, Jews who were too poor or unimportant to be exiled, groups of foreigners who had been resettled in the area by Babylon in order to control the peoples they had conquered, and those families who had lived several generations in exile in Babylon and had just returned.
Divisions and prejudices existed between all the groups. The Jews who had been left behind resented those who were returning. Some of the foreigners who had been resettled in Jerusalem had adopted the Jewish faith, but their conversions were not always accepted or welcomed. (One group became known as Samaritans.) Who would make decisions? How could unity be brought to the chaos?
For Isaiah membership in the community would not be based on genetics or cultural customs, or even religion, but on behavior. Isaiah wrote that membership in the community required two things: “keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to [God’s] covenant.” Keeping the Sabbath meant to live a certain way. The Book Isaiah describes the lifestyle expected by God: “do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17).
What of us? Isn’t unity something we long for within our own communities? Although most of us have not experienced disaster, we do experience many differences, and some of them are bitter. Political parties call each other names. Racism, although not as overt as in the past, still exists. Immigrants continue to arrive from many countries, and resentment against them abounds. We are divided by religion. Issues over the sanctity of life continue to create huge divisions. Isaiah still speaks to us.
In his Gospel, Matthew presented Jesus in the context of his own day, a time in which divisions also were deep and lines were drawn. But Matthew also presented Jesus as the one person willing to step over the line. Jesus reached out to Gentiles! Today’s story is, as it was then, a painful experience for many, for Jesus set a course for all believers that dictates how they must find ways to love each other despite differences.
Recovering from disasters is a messy business. Overcoming differences is even messier. We must hold our values dear and not sacrifice them for the sake of unity, but our differences must not cause us to forsake or abandon others either. We must build a community that resembles the Kingdom in which all are cared for, no matter how different.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.