Wednesday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Dominic, Priest
Battling the Combatants & Sparing the Civilians
Readings: Numbers 13:1-2, 25–14:1, 26a-29a, 34-35; Psalms 106:6-7ab, 13-14, 21-22, 23; Matthew 15: 21-28
This past Sunday we had occasion to reflect upon what might be the proper Christian attitude toward heaven and earth, the religious and the secular. By using the metaphor of the kitesurfer we suggested then that there is a need for balance. As Christians who have already been called out of darkness into God’s own wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9), but who still continue to live in this passing world, our calling necessitates that we set our minds on the things of heaven even as we remain fully engaged in the affairs of earth. In this way, we cooperate in God’s efforts at hastening the coming of heaven upon earth.
Today’s readings invite us to deepen our meditation on the same theme. The metaphors used are those of warfare. In the first reading the Israelites find themselves being urged by God to enter and to take possession of the Promised Land. They respond in various ways, two of which are found in the first reading. There is the fear and apprehension of the majority of the scouts. Cowed by the ferocious strength of the Canaanites, they discourage the people from heeding God’s call. In contrast, there is the courageous enthusiasm of Caleb, who even though he has seen the same things as his companions, remains eager to engage the Canaanites in battle, to do God’s bidding. Avoidance and engagement: these are the options laid before the people today.
But other responses are possible too. For we know, of course, that there is something more at stake here than a piece of land. As Pope Benedict XVI tells us in his latest book: As time went by, it became increasingly clear that the promise of the land meant this: The land was given as a space for obedience, a realm of openness to God, that was to be freed from the abominations of idolatry. That is what the Israelites are being called to do in the first reading: to enter the land and to engage in battle so as to win it over to God. But as the story unfolds, we will see that even when the Israelites do finally enter and possess the land, many will be seduced by the idolatry they find there. In either case, whether it is through avoidance born of fear, or idolatry born of seduction, God’s purpose is thwarted all the same.
And there is at least one more danger, especially highlighted for us in the gospel today. We know well, for example, how important it is for soldiers caught in the heat of battle to carefully distinguish the civilians from the combatants. Aren't the Israelites challenged to do the same? Even as they enter and do battle to win over the land for God, don’t they need to refrain from too quickly dismissing all the inhabitants of the land as evil? Isn’t this what Jesus teaches us through his interactions with the Canaanite woman today? Can we not but marvel at the flexibility and openness with which he allows this female foreigner to shatter prevailing stereotypes? Contrary to popular belief, even in a Canaanite, and a Canaanite woman at that, one can find great faith.
As we ponder upon the situation of the Israelites at the edge of the Promised Land, are we not drawn to consider the challenge we ourselves face as God’s chosen people? Today, are we not also being called to enter and take possession of the land, to do battle and to win it over to God? Are we not challenged to not let fear or seduction or stereotypical thinking hinder us in our task?
How might we courageously battle the combatants while sparing the civilians today?