According to Wikipedia, that source than which none more authoritative can be thought, “Riffraff is a term for the common people or hoi polloi, but with negative connotations. The term is derived from Old French ‘rif et raf’ meaning ‘one and all, every bit.’”
My ancestors are Dutch, and—like many other ethnic groups—think their pretty special. The typical saying is, “If yah ain’t Dutch, yah ain’t much.”
However one may assess the muchness of the Dutch in modern times, from the perspective of the people of Israel in antiquity, the Dutch were riffraff, nameless illiterate Germanic tribes eking out a living on the cold shoreline and humid forests of northwestern Europe. How could such people ever enter into the fullness of God’s covenant?
The extension of God’s covenant to all the “nations” or “Gentiles” (from the Latin gentes, “races, peoples”) is the unifying theme of the Readings for Mass this weekend.
We begin with one of the classic passages from the second half of the Book of Isaiah that indicates a change in the covenant economy under which the people of God were living.
In the days of Isaiah, the people of Israel were living—or should have been living—according to the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant (that is, the covenant with Israel mediated by Moses, not a covenant God made with Moses). This covenant, summarized in its final form in the Book of Deuteronomy, did not have much room for the Gentiles, except perhaps as subjugated vassals of the People of Israel:
Deut. 28:1 “And if you obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments which I command you this day, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth…. “The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you; they shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways. 10 And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD; and they shall be afraid of you. 12 … you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. 13 And the LORD will make you the head, and not the tail; and you shall tend upward only, and not downward; if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God ….
In Jesus’ day, the different sects of Judaism had varying stances toward the Gentiles. The Pharisees were at least interested in making proselytes of them (Matt 23:15), but the Essenes had no use for them.
However, the prophets of Israel foresaw a coming age where the negative attitude toward the Gentiles based on the Mosaic Covenant, would be undone. Our First Reading is one of the more famous passages from the second half of the Book of Isaiah that anticipates such a situation:
Reading 1 Is 56:1, 6-7
Thus says the LORD:
Observe what is right, do what is just;
for my salvation is about to come,
my justice, about to be revealed.
The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
ministering to him,
loving the name of the LORD,
and becoming his servants-
all who keep the sabbath free from profanation
and hold to my covenant,
them I will bring to my holy mountain
and make joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be acceptable on my altar,
for my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all peoples.
Strikingly, some of the language used to describe the relationship of these foreigners to the Lord is priestly terminology. These foreigners will “minister” (Heb. shereth) to the LORD and become his “servants” (Heb. ‘ebadim). The verb shereth is usually employed to describe priestly labor (cf. Exod 28:35 etc.), and the priests themselves are called “servants of the LORD” (cf. Ps 134:1; Ps 135:1). This oracle of Isaiah makes it sound as though, in the latter days, foreigners will not only be able to worship God, but also serve in a priestly capacity.
Isaiah’s promise that the “burnt offerings and sacrifices” of foreigners would be acceptable on the altar of the LORD could scarcely be more at odds with the perspective of the Essenes of Jesus’ day. In the famous work “4QMMT,” a letter on legal issues apparently sent from the Essenes at Qumran to the Pharisees in Jerusalem, the Essenes criticize perceived abuses taking place in the Temple:
[Concerning the offering of ] the [gentile gr]ain [that they are …] 7 and allowing their […] to touch it and [become] def[iled. No one should eat] 8 from [Gent]ile grain [nor] bring it into the sanctuary […] … Concerning the Gentile sacrifice, [we have determined that they are] sacrifici[ng] 12 to the […] which is [like a woman] who has fornicated with him. (4Q394 frags. 3-7, col. I, lines 6-12 [excerpted])
Although the text is fragmentary, it seems clear that the Essenes objected even to the grain of Gentiles being brought into the sanctuary—much less the Gentiles themselves entering and offering sacrifice to God!
According to Mark 11, Jesus entered the temple and drove out the money changers. The area of the Temple that Jesus “cleansed” is usually understood to be the outer court, or “court of the Gentiles”—the external area that was the closest Gentiles were allowed to come into God’s presence in the Second Temple period. After driving out the merchants, Our Lord quotes from today’s First Reading: “And he taught, and said to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Part of the purpose of the Temple cleansing was to restore to the Gentiles what access to God was permissible for them under the current system.
The Responsorial continues the theme of the Gentiles (Nations) entering into relationship with God:
Responsorial Psalm Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
R. (4) O God, let all the nations praise you!
May God have pity on us and bless us;
may he let his face shine upon us.
So may your way be known upon earth;
among all nations, your salvation.
R. O God, let all the nations praise you!
May the nations be glad and exult
because you rule the peoples in equity;
the nations on the earth you guide.
R. O God, let all the nations praise you!
May the peoples praise you, O God;
may all the peoples praise you!
May God bless us,
and may all the ends of the earth fear him!
R. O God, let all the nations praise you!
There are many psalms that call on the “peoples” or “nations” to bless the LORD. Is this all empty rhetoric, invented in antiquity when no one but Jews came to the Temple? I think not. According to the Books of Samuel and Kings, the kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon expanded to become an empire including the surrounding non-Israelite nations as vassal states. During this period, Jerusalem probably saw a steady stream of Gentile officials coming on diplomatic business with the royal court, which would likely include worshipping the God of their suzerain. It seems to me likely that several psalms were originally written with this context in mind, in which Israelites would be mixed with visiting foreigners in the Solomonic Temple (e.g. Ps 47:9).
Of course, this ancient kingdom of David and Solomon—really an international empire—is a type and image of the Church, in which Jew and Gentile can gather to worship under the leadership of the Son of David.
St. Paul, the great “Apostle to the Gentiles,” takes up this theme directly in the Second Reading:
Reading 2 Rom 11:13-15, 29-32
Brothers and sisters:
I am speaking to you Gentiles.
Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles,
I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous
and thus save some of them.
For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world,
what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.
Just as you once disobeyed God
but have now received mercy because of their disobedience,
so they have now disobeyed in order that,
by virtue of the mercy shown to you,
they too may now receive mercy.
For God delivered all to disobedience,
that he might have mercy upon all.
It is a shame that this reading from Paul is so highly excerpted, such that it drops St. Paul’s beautiful analogy of the Gentiles being grafted into Israel like wild olive branches grafted onto a cultured olive tree (Rom. 11:17-24; strikingly, the exact reverse of usual agricultural practice!). With such a fragmentary text as we have in the liturgical reading, it is difficult to see St. Paul’s argument. Nonetheless, we can summarize the main point of Romans 11 as the mysterious interrelationship of the salvation of Israel and the Nations. Though Jew and Gentile seem to have different “paths to God,” in reality, St. Paul points out, the salvation of both groups is inextricably united in God’s plan. Nowhere is this more evident than the enigmatic verses Rom 11:25-26, where St. Paul states: “Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved ….” Commentators struggle over how it can be that the “full number of the Gentiles” coming in will be the means by which “all Israel will be saved.” While we cannot enter into a full treatment of this passage, I would just mention the possibility that Paul is influenced here by Isaiah once again—specifically Isaiah 66:18-21, which envisions an eschatological ingathering of the Gentiles, which will bring large numbers of Israelites along with it.
The Gospel reading tells of a Gentile woman—and not any Gentile woman, but a descendant of the Canaanites, about whom the Old Covenant as summarized in Deuteronomy had nothing good to say at all (Deut 20:16-18)—who finds salvation through Jesus:
Gospel Mt 15:21-28
At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
Jesus’ disciples came and asked him,
“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
He said in reply,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
He said in reply,
“It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters.”
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
“O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.
Many are troubled by the Lord’s apparently harsh way of dealing with this woman, at least initially. Shouldn’t Jesus have immediately offered to heal this poor woman’s daughter? Yet we need to remember that the Lord had prophetic insight into the hearts of the people with whom he interacted. He knew what people were thinking and the state of their heart (Matt 9:4; 12:25; John 2:25; 6:61). Jesus adapts his way of dealing with people to their individual situations and needs. For example, he doesn’t challenge everyone to sell all that they have and give to the poor (cf. Matt 19:21 and Luke 19:8-10), but he knew that was what the rich young man needed to do.
So, in the case of this Sunday’s Gospel, we need to understand Jesus’ actions as tailored to the faith of this woman. He sees that she has faith—he puts her faith to the test, to elicit more faith. Untested faith is no faith at all.
“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus says, a painful reminder that Gentile pagans have no covenantal claim on the God of Israel, no right to call him to be faithful to his obligations toward them (hesed), only the ability to throw themselves (ourselves!) on the mercy of God the creator.
The woman has both tremendous faith, and tremendous humility. Not taking insult from Jesus’ words, humbly acknowledging her lack of any covenant claim on the God of Israel, she asks for unmerited mercy: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
We recall that Jacob himself, father of all the sons of Israel, was not the direct heir of God’s covenant, but connived and struggled his way in. We recall Rahab’s family and the Gibeonites, both Canaanite groups that should have been wiped out in the conquest, but who tricked and struggled their way into the people of the covenant. We recall Ruth the Moabitess and Uriah the Hittite, who renounced their ethnicity and swore oaths to the God of Israel. And we realize that throughout salvation history, God has been finding a place in his covenant for people who, in some way or other, didn’t belong there, but wanted to be there.
We are reminded of St. Paul’s words elsewhere:
1 Cor. 1:26 For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; 27 but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are …
At Mass this Sunday, look around. You are surrounded by the riffraff of the earth. You may be the riffraff of the earth yourself. “Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled!” What kind of God is this, that lets all the riffraff into his covenant? Thanks be to God he let us all in!