I must confess that when I was reflecting on the gospel lesson and the other scriptures, but especially the gospel lesson, I had to smile because I've had the experience rather recently of being invited to a Diocese where I was to give a retreat at a retreat house for a weekend. The bishop called me and said, "I don't want you to come." His reason was, "You know, Tom, you're controversial and there'll be media there." That's when I smiled or even laughed to myself. First of all, I've never had the experience, in the dozens of times that I've given retreats at retreat houses, that the media are the least bit interested in covering such an event.
The Peace Pulpit
I think all of us have become accustomed to speaking about the Gospel, which we listen to each week, and read ourselves during the week, as the “good news.” It’s news -- something new and important -- but good news. Then we come to a parable like the one today and we wonder, “How can it be such good news?” Because instinctively, I think every one of us feels something is violated. Here these people worked one hour; others had worked the whole day. They mentioned the burden of the work and the heat, they put up with all of that and they get the same thing. I think most of us feel there’s something wrong there.
The passage we hear today from John’s Gospel is part of a conversation Jesus was having with one of the leading Pharisees, Nicodemus. Many of the Pharisees, you’ll remember, were opposed to Jesus, but Nicodemus came in the middle of the night because he had begun to be attracted to Jesus, so Jesus engages in this conversation.
As always when we celebrate our liturgy of the word, we try to listen deeply to what God is speaking to us. We must try to do it within the context of what is happening within our lives. Today, of course, we know, and all of us are very profoundly aware, that the biggest thing happening in our life right now, happening within our country, is the campaign to determine who will be our leaders for the next four years.
This gospel, the incident described today, happened immediately after last Sunday's gospel, the incident that happened there. That seemed to be such a great moment for Simon Peter and for the other disciples because, as Peter declared, they knew, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." But at the end of that passage, last Sunday, Jesus said something that might have seemed strange to us because he told those disciples at that moment: "Don't tell anybody. Don't tell anybody that I am the Messiah."
Some of you, I'm sure, have been to Rome and have seen the great basilica of St. Peter on Vatican Hill in the midst of Vatican City. If you haven't been there, you've certainly seen pictures of that tremendous basilica, overpowering in its size and richness and the symbol of power that it gives forth. Perhaps you noticed if you were there that around the dome -- which is the most extraordinary feature of this church, a huge dome -- in very large letters are the words that Jesus says today in the gospel.
The scripture readings today are very inspiring and also extraordinarily challenging.
When we look at the gospel lesson first of all, it's amazing, isn't it, the courage and the faith and the love of this woman? A Canaanite -- not only a Gentile, not a Jew, but also from the very people who were the first enemies of the Jewish people when they were freed from slavery in Egypt and came into the promised land. This is a Canaanite. They'd been hostile to the Jews for centuries, yet she has the courage to come forward, to cry after Jesus. This is a woman in a very patriarchal society. According to the custom, she should not have been in the street by herself. She should not approach a man as she did. But her love for her daughter was so strong and she wanted so much to get what was good for her daughter, that she had the courage to push beyond the boundaries that were supposed to hold her back.
It's my conviction that most of us who hear these lessons today, especially the first lesson, can find a lot of comfort in them. I think there are a couple of reasons for this, one of which is very obvious, and the other we have to search a little bit more deeply to discover what God is really saying to us today.
Over the last four or five Sundays, our liturgy of the word has focused on the reign of God. We were reminded how, when Jesus first began his public life, his first declaration was, "The reign of God is at hand. Change your lives."
As I mentioned in introducing the gospel, this is the third Sunday that we have been listening to parables by Jesus, and all of them, seven in total, are connected with the kingdom of heaven. Jesus wants us to understand what he means by the kingdom of heaven. Perhaps you reviewed this last week or the week before, but it's important to do it once more, to review what Jesus meant when he said "The kingdom of heaven."