Romans 11.1-2a & 29-32
The writers of this passage wanted it to be clearly understood that God works in human lives and human history, and that events which seem tragic and troubling to us in the present moment are sometimes part of - or can be woven into - the longterm out-working of God's purposes for us. There is a danger here, of course. People of faith will always try their hardest to look back on what has happened and impose a pattern on random events so that they seem to make sense and prove that God was with us all of the time, shaping the way things turned out. But I think that is to misunderstand how God works through history. We cannot absolve ourselves of all responsibility when things go wrong simply by imagining that they are part of some grand scheme of which we are totally unaware - although they may be, and how else are we to make sense of the Cross? However, the truth is more complicated than that. God is like a master weaver, patiently mending the broken threads and putting right the mistakes which the apprentices make as they contribute their share to the big picture. And we are the apprentices, of courses. Our task, like that of Joseph, is to remain faithful to the work of bringing order and harmony to creation, and to continue looking for ways of serving God by helping to bring all things together for good.
We must not assume, however, that there is only one God-given shape which events can take if they are to be made perfect. God's future is constantly shifting, like a kaleidoscope, as current events make their impact on the pattern. It is neither possible, nor even desirable, for God to unpick the mistakes we make. He can only put them right by incorporating them into the pattern in such a way as to minimise the damage we have caused and bring as much good out of them as possible. This is why what seemed like a God-given opportunity, for the children of Israel to move to the land of plenty in Egypt and prosper there in spite of the famine, would later turn into a nightmare of oppression from which they had - in turn - to be rescued again.
Paul describes the process whereby we are given access to the pattern-making, and therefore the freedom to make mistakes and change the big picture, as being imprisoned by God. At first sight this is a shocking idea and we might be tempted to dismiss it as contrary to God's loving nature. But we should bear with the idea, for it merits further examination.
Paul's point is that, although the freedom to do what is right seems like a wonderful gift, human nature makes it absolutely certain that we will in fact go wrong. However, Paul is not blaming God for giving us too much freedom, and therefore causing us to become imprisoned - like naughty children who are given to much leeway by their parents - in a nightmare of our own making. He is merely noting that the unique freedom - to change the course of events - which is enjoyed by human beings inevitably brings its own down side. As we choose to make bad decisions, that freedom to choose rapidly turns human life into a prison where we are repeatedly hemmed in and punished by the consequences of all our earlier mistakes until the freedom that we seemed to have at the beginning turns out to be an illusion.
It is this kind of reasoning which infuriates atheists. Why do bad things happen if there is a good God? they ask. 'Because we all have freewill,' the believer replies. And this draws the retort, 'So why does a good God allow freewill if it is so corrosive and harmful?'
One possible response to the atheist is that life is unavoidably complicated, and believing in God does not remove the complications. But that is not Paul's answer. His answer is that God has himself provided a solution to the problem in the person of Jesus, who gives us the power we need to break free from the prison created by our mistakes.
In the passage from Matthew's Gospel we see a snapshot from life's rich tapestry in which a gentile woman is caught in the act of changing the big picture, but not this time by her mistakes but by her insistent pleading for help. Challenged by her great faith, Jesus changes his original plan - to work only with the people of the lost house of Israel - and heals her daughter. Does this mean that Jesus, too, had been a prisoner of the moment - trapped by narrow prejudices which made it seem as though the people of Israel must be rescued before he could reach out to others? Does he, at this moment, break free from these confines and grasp a wider vision? Or, as seems more likely, is he simply pointing out that - in order to undo the mistakes of the past - it is necessary for him to begin remaking the picture at the most logical place, rather like someone sitting down to do a jigsaw puzzle and working outwards from the corners instead of starting with the sky.