Today’s gospel is kind of remarkable in that it gives us a look at something that has plagued humanity for a long time. The Mediterranean world was a tribal world and in many ways closed itself off from outsiders. As a result, in this passage, we see Jesus reacts to the woman, an outsider, in an almost harsh way. He says his mission is to Israelites and basically calls her a dog. Yet ultimately, Jesus sees and understands that the woman’s faith and perseverance makes her a follower and he grants her request. This Gospel I think has a lesson for our present time. For the past couple centuries, our nation has been a place of settlement and refuge for people from different parts of the world. Whether voluntarily or involuntarily our population has grown and people have been able to live in relative peace. Science has made popular the tracing of ancestry through a person’s DNA. In my own case, I was surprised to find that I was 2-3% Asian. My point is that the human race is really one and that no matter where our ancestors started out, here we are.
Christ came and as God created the whole world and all and everything in it, so Christ was born and lived and died and rose for every human ever created. His love has and does embrace everyone. Through the centuries, both before Christ’s time and after it there has been evil and bad things present in the world. The freedom which was imparted into humanity to make their own choices, has at many times been a trial and tribulation for humanity. Choosing not to love as God has ask is to deny him and be in sin. Even then, through the graces of Christ, his love shows mercy and forgiveness when sought out. Never has Christ’s love and message needed more to be preached and shown to the world than when humanity’s choices seem unfortunate and wrong. Christ’s love is with us still and always, we must be strong and show and share that same love.
19th Sunday Ordinary time, 8-13-17; 1 Kings 19:9a-13a; Ps 85; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33.
As I read these scriptures this week, a single word stood out: “Anguish.” This week is a counterpoint to last week’s glorious Transfiguration. Paul uses the word “Anguish” in our reading from his Letter to the Romans. As you probably know, Paul was a Jewish Pharisee before he converted to “The Way” of Jesus and became an evangelist of the Good News. Paul is thinking about “the great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart for the Jews, his people. Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior was tragic. It was the Jews who had watchfully awaited the Messiah, who had passed the expectation from generation to generation. It was the Jews who had been given the law and commandments; the Jews who had made the covenant with God, and it was from the line of David that Jesus was born. While Paul offers praise to God for this marvelous gift of the Messiah, he does it with a heavy heart.
Elijah’s heart was more anguished than Paul’s. Elijah had the kind of stress that can kill people. When Ahab had become King of Israel, “he did more to anger God than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1Kings 16:33). He worshiped idols and he built altars to them. His wife, Jezebel, focused killing all the prophets of God, particularly Elijah. Finally, Elijah went to King Ahab and demanded a showdown. It was Elijah for God vs. 450 prophets for the idols. Each side built an altar and called for fire to come down and consume a sacrifice. The prophets of the idols called out, danced, and cut themselves with knifes for hours to no effect. Elijah flooded his altar with water, said a short prayer, and fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, the water, the wood, even the stones. Then he ran.
For a full day, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s wrath, until he collapsed in fear, exhaustion, and anguish over the entire situation. He prayed for death to take him. Instead, an angel provided food for him until he was able to continue to the mountains. God asked him why he was in hiding. Elijah responded, “I have given everything I had, and more, for you, God. But the people have turned away from you, your places of worship have been destroyed, and all your prophets are dead. I am alone and there is nothing else I can do.” That is the voice of anguish. God arrives with a “tiny whispering sound”, the gentleness we need when we are in such emotional pain. God protects Elijah, has him anoint a new king and a new prophet, and then brings Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind on a flaming chariot.
Even our Psalm today is a lament. The people are in anguish, feeling abandoned by God and afraid God will be angry with them forever. They want God’s love and glory to return. They imagine kindness and truth meeting. When someone asks if their new clothes make them look fat, we find that kindness and truth do not always meet. Truth does not always spring from us on earth, and we would often prefer mercy rather than justice from heaven. Being holy people is difficult.
So, we move to the Gospel, and things aren’t going very well there, either. Jesus has just heard the news that his dear cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod as part of an obscene power-play at an outlandish party! It was just too revolting and horrendous, and Jesus withdrew to a quiet place by himself in grief. But people continued to seek him out, and a crowd of some 5,000 people gathered, begging for healing and needing food. Setting aside his own anguish over John, he attended to their needs. Afterward, still needing time to himself, he sends the disciples ahead in the boat, and Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.
Jesus walking on water is one of the beloved stories of the faith, and I’m sure you know it. A heavy storm broke over the lake. Jesus, knowing, that the disciples’ faith was still as little as a new-born baby, goes to them. They are so panicked, so anguished, that they react even to Jesus with fear and doubt. There it is again, “Do not be afraid.” If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it should be. As Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat, the disciples worship him as The Divine One he is.
What did we learn?
1. We all have to rely on God, especially when it seems that evil or tragedy has the upper hand. Elijah shows us that trust is not just a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet emergence of God’s faithful love. Faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers or efforts.
2. Like Paul, every Christian experiences anguish because our failures and our experiences can seem so hard to reconcile with the promises of God. Yet those promises are eternal. Our faith has its ups and downs and it is often very difficult to see our life in the big picture.
3. “Lord, let us see your kindness”, our Psalmist said. Let us see God’s kindness in all the people who follow God, carrying their crosses of daily sacrifice and suffering.
4. Knowing that Jesus experienced loss and grief, we know he will not abandon us. We too can be healed by time spent with God in prayer and meditation. After getting back into the boat, Peter would have told us that sometimes Jesus will calm the storm, and sometimes Jesus will calm you in the storm. But we are never beyond God’s reach and never have too little faith to call out to him, for God is with us.
Today’s gospel is interesting, but first we should see that with the Transfiguration we missed the death of John the Baptist in the previous week’s cycle. At that time he wanted to be alone and withdrew to a quiet place only to be followed by the crowd. He ministered to them and sent them away and sent his Apostles across the Sea of Galilee. Like all of us, He obviously needed some time alone to think and to interact with his Father. In times when our hearts are troubled or some crisis needs to be absorbed, most people seem to retreat for some solitude and even prayer. Elijah in the first reading did that. As he waited for Yahweh, a storm came and an earthquake came but God was not there. In a quiet whisper he hid his face as God was there. But in the Gospel, we see Jesus finish his time of solitude and set out to catch up with his Apostles. A storm had come up and the boat was being tossed about and the Apostles were afraid. More frightening for them was to see Jesus approaching them on the water. It was like a ghost approaching them. In fear they cried out, only to be assured that it was He who was there. It is then we see Peter at Jesus call walking to Jesus and then starting to sink. A startling reminder that faith even in Jesus presence gave into doubt when human thought doubted the intervention of Jesus. Faith requires a constancy of thought and perseverance. In Matthew’s account of this, we see that the faith of all brings them to to declare that Jesus was the Son of God.
To be learned today are a couple of things. First would be that at times we need to withdraw or stand aside for some time and prayer. Rest and refreshment is good for our spiritual side as well as our physical side. A second thing though is to realize that God can come at that time of crisis and be a partner as we weather whatever storm there is. Unlike Peter, we should not give into doubt or fear, and should always maintain our faith and perseverance regardless of what is ahead. This has and will be Jesus message as he still goes up to Jerusalem and what lies ahead. He knows His Apostles’ faith will have them sink like Peter, yet like Peter they will be rescued by Jesus own love and resolve.
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Ps: 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Matthew 17:1-9
In 2017, Americans are not ones to talk about visions. In fact, if someone even talks about a dream they had, it seems kind of odd. We like scary books, we like science fiction, and we like our movies loaded with special effects. But when we mention visions, or the mystical, or we mention a Saint who had visions, someone inevitably rolls their eyes or starts making woo-oo sounds, like a silly old ghost movie.
Our Gospel today has that one little word that I never really noticed before, and hadn’t really taken into account. The last sentence was Jesus saying, “Don’t tell the VISION to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
I can’t think of ever hearing a homily that didn’t treat the Transfiguration as an actual event, the kind of thing you could calendar, google a map for. For sure, Matthew collected every bit of symbolism he could from traditional sources. Examples: the mountain (being higher up makes you closer to God- mountains are almost always the site of important theological events); brilliant lights and white garments (found in most near-death experiences); overshadowing cloud (protecting you from seeing God). Of course, Moses is the symbol of the Law, while Elijah is the prophet of all prophets. There are 3 apostles, symbol of the divine Trinity, and a repeat of the voice of God from when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Peter suggests 3 booths, or tents, to bring Jewish liturgy of the Feast of Tabernacles in to the mix, recalling the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. You can find all this and more in Matthew 26:37, Exodus 24: 12-18, 1 Kings 19: 8-18, Daniel 10:6, Revelations 4 and 9, Leviticus 23: 39-42, Matthew 3: 17, Deuteronomy 18: 15, Daniel 10: 9-19, as well as in historic Jewish writings on the Last Days which were not included in the Old Testament.
I think it is crucial that we are able to accept that some religious experiences are not the same as “normal” every day life. Perfectly sane and stable people have visions, which are a way for the brain to interpret events and facts beyond their imagination in ways they can relate to. It is really important to not expect that the Bible gives us a detailed video-style account in every passage. The Gospel writers, like Matthew, had a purpose for writing – to record the oral history of Jesus as the eyewitnesses died out AND give us certainty for our faith. The object as stated in our second reading, is to let us know that Jesus was not a “cleverly devised myth”, but real, and the Christian message is “altogether reliable.”
So our primary job is to determine the message the Gospel writer wants to give us. Just from the words used to describe the scene, I think it is fair to say that Matthew wants us to know that while Jesus was a humble itinerant Jewish preacher to his contemporaries, Jesus is also the Son of God; his teachings are divine wisdom, and his miracles are acts of God. Also, since Matthew has placed the Transfiguration in between Jesus’ 1st and 2nd predictions of his suffering, death and resurrection, we need to take special care to view those events in the light of Jesus’ divinity and God’s plan for his people.
By extension, the crucifixion is not shameful, but instead becomes a divine gift and an entryway to holiness for all people who are fully aware of their sins, their un-retractable actions of hurt and pain to others, their crimes and failings. Crucifixion was supposed to put an end to the idea that the actions and teachings of this unique and charismatic teacher could be implemented. Crucifixion was designed as a powerful barrier to following Jesus’ teachings.
But now all can draw strength and courage from his suffering and death. The Transfiguration would be that vision that would be forever burned in the memory of all as God-given proof of who Jesus was and what he had done for us. Matthew presents it as the pivotal point of change in lives and attitudes.
Jesus, then, has foretold his resurrection, and dies making clear that death itself has been overcome. If Jesus had such confidence in God’s desire and ability to turn senseless violence and suffering into triumph, then why should anyone else fear to follow his footsteps?
The Transfiguration is so very much “not normal”; it is so very much designed to startle us and get our attention. It is like a gigantic heavenly spotlight, giving us light, sound, and visuals; we get a clear view of who Jesus is. It sets our understanding straight. St. Peter’s letter makes a point of testifying to the power and coming of Jesus as real; His majesty and divinity are real. Those moments of seeing Jesus in Glory were designed to provide confirmation, certainty, hope and proof. God has the last word: Listen to him!