Our Global God

Guest essay by David Buschart. W. David Buschart serves as Associate Dean and Professor of Theology at Denver Seminary (Colorado), and as a theological consultant to churches and organizations. His forthcoming book is titled Exploring Protestant Traditions: An Invitation to Theological Hospitality (InterVarsity Press).

For Sunday August 14, 2005

            Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
            Isaiah 56:1, (2 –5), 6–7
            Psalm 67
            Romans 11:3–15, 29–32
            Matthew 15:21–28

Canaanite woman kneeling before Jesus.
Canaanite woman kneeling before Jesus.

           "The world is getting smaller." We are reminded of the truism of globalization virtually every day. When we log onto the internet and watch "breaking news" from a country on the other side of the planet, when we are warned about the possibility of infectious diseases rapidly hopping from continent to continent, when we sit in a sidewalk café and overhear conversations taking place in five different languages, we are reminded that the world is getting smaller.

           Globalization has brought many of the peoples of the world closer together. However, this "closeness" often consists only in physical or digital proximity, and not necessarily in terms of relational harmony or friendship. Indeed, business and political leaders often exhort us that we "must" adjust to the emerging global reality, and that "we have no choice" but to adapt our economic and political policies to this new world. Implicit in these mandates is the knowledge that making the changes required by globalization is not easy. While globalization offers many new opportunities, it also presents many new challenges, or new versions of old challenges.

Jesus grants the wish of the Canaanite woman.
Jesus grants the wish of the Canaanite woman.

           Among the challenges of globalization is that of embracing both the local and the global, both the distinctive and the common, both the particular and the universal. Globalization calls us to both respect that which makes each person, each culture, each nation unique, and, at the same time, embrace that which will bring diverse people closer together, not just physically or digitally but relationally. This combination of both respect for particularity and embrace that is universal in scope is not always easy. It is, however, necessary. It is what God and the gospel of Christ calls us to.

           God calls us to a respect and embrace that he himself embodies. In the lectionary for this week, the prophet Isaiah writes, "foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord . . . all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer." And, this house of prayer will be "for all nations" (Is. 56:6–7). Similarly, Psalm 67:2 indicates that the gift of God's salvation will be known "among all nations." Accordingly, the psalmist expresses the desire, "May all peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you" (Ps. 67:3). In the Old Testament where there is sustained focus on the one nation in particular, Israel, there is also the vision of God's saving work extending to nothing less than all the nations, all the peoples of the world. Yet, this universal vision is neither blind to nor does it seek to eradicate all differences among people.

Psalm 67, 'May God have mercy on us and bless us'.
Psalm 67, "May God have mercy on us
and bless us".

           In a challenging passage, Matthew records an encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman who pleads for her daughter's release from demon possession (Matt. 15:22). The Canaanites were long-time enemies of Israel, and Matthew, who is writing for a predominantly Jewish audience, makes a point of identifying this woman as a Canaanite. Rather than responding with ready and evident compassion, Jesus responds to her with silence. "Jesus did not answer a word" (15:23). To his disciples he indicates that he has come "only to the lost sheep of Israel" (15:24). The woman pleads a second time, and this time Jesus responds with words that seem to draw an analogy between the woman (or, as embodied in the woman, all Canaanites) and dogs (15:26). She persists a third time, and this time Jesus redemptively reaches across the chasm between Jews and Canaanites, recognizes her faith in God, and grants her request. "And her daughter was healed from that very hour" (15:28).

            This gospel passage reveals that Jesus' understanding of God's saving work entails both the particular and the universal. He knew that this woman was a Canaanite; he knew that he had been sent to Israel. He also knew that God's redemptive work reaches across the boundaries of difference without necessarily obliterating them. God in Christ did not make this woman and her daughter into something

The Apostles depart in all directions to preach to the nations.
The Apostles depart
in all directions to
preach to the nations

other than Canaanites, but in response to the woman's faith he did bring healing to her daughter. Jesus was a Jew and was indeed sent to the lost sheep of Israel, yet this particularity did not proscribe the limits of God's gracious work in and through him. In fact, in Romans 11 the apostle Paul, "an Israelite [him]self, a descendant of Abraham" (11:1), expresses hope for Israel because "salvation has come to the Gentiles" (11:12). When either Gentiles or Jews, women or men, North Americans or South Americans are saved, they remain Gentiles or Jews, women or men, North Americans or South Americans, yet they are saved in the same way—through faith. And, this salvation, whether of Jew or Gentile, is the result of God's grace and mercy which is blind to differences of ethnicity, gender, or nationality (11:5–6, 30–32).

Rejoicing in heaven.
Rejoicing in heaven.

           The fact that such differences do not constitute a barrier to the love of God does not mean, however, that God's saving work is meaninglessly indiscriminate. Those whom God welcomes into his "house of prayer for all nations" are those who "bind themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to [the Lord's] covenant" (Is. 56:6–7). These are people who "maintain justice and do what is right" (Is. 56:1). These are people who fear and praise God (Ps. 67:3–7). These are people like the Canaanite woman, who persevered in faith in the only hope she had (Matt. 15:28).

           Readers come to journey with Jesus from many races and places, and because the gospel of Christ is both particular and universal it can be good news for each and every race and place. One need not disavow one's particularity—for example, one's gender or nationality—in order to follow Jesus, for he is bringing together people from "all nations" (note the plural). And, the journey with Jesus is universal in that it encompasses people from "all nations." Those who would otherwise be held apart as "foreigners" but who "bind themselves to the Lord" will experience "joy in [God's] house of prayer" (Is. 56:7).