That ancient problem of the one and the many has taken a million shapes. It is seen in the battle of change with continuity, the clash of novelty with permanence, the claims of individuality versus universality.
The conflict also appears in passages of scripture that contrast the particularities of Judaism or Christianity with the universality of God. Isaiah announced a God whose salvation and justice would be open to aliens. “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Thus, the psalmist wrote that all nations would come to praise God. St. Paul, in his reconciling claims of Jew and Gentile, reminded the Romans that a more universal truth of God’s mercy is revealed in the failures of both.
Even the accounts of Jesus’ meetings with Gentiles balance the claims of inclusion and exclusion. He seems rather harsh to the Canaanite woman who seeks healing for her demon-possessed daughter. At first Jesus does not even respond, and his disciples nag him to dismiss her because of her stubborn shouts. When Jesus remarks that his mission is only to the lost sheep of Israel, the woman presses her point, not only begging more insistently for help, but rebutting his rejection. “Even the dogs eat the leavings that fall from their master’s tables.”
Although the issue of tribal and religious inclusion might be discussed here, especially in light of Isaiah’s promise of universalism and Paul’s appeal to Gentile and Jew, what might be more key about this story is the revelation of that common trait of all men and women which engages the healing power of Jesus.
It is the heart, the plea, the persistent hope. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed.
The Canaanite woman embodies the constant and universal quality that every human heart—Jew or Gentile, woman or man, slave or free—possesses. It was her and our own willingness to call out in faith. This power, slumbering in us all from the moment of our beginnings in our mothers’ wombs, whether ever actualized or not, is what each of us uniquely possesses and yet has in common with all the rest of us. From the time of Sarah and Abraham to Mary’s yes and Joseph’s word of trust, from Romans to rabbis, Africans to Indians, it is the endowment of our personhood that unites us all in our humanity. It is also what makes everyone of us singularly strategic in playing our particular life drama.
Human persons are endowed with the capacity to take possession of their lives and offer their lives in faith. This is what makes every man and woman wholly equal before the world and God.
Yet the universal blessing of our humanity is found only in individuals. Each of us must act out the drama of a single life alone. There is no understudy, no replacement in these matters. Our common gift is displayed in singular and particular beauty. Thus, the paradox of the one and the many is that the very gift that makes us all most alike makes each of us altogether unique.