The Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time August 20, 2017
Isaiah 56, 1, 6-7 + Psalm 67 + Romans 11, 13-15, 29-32 + Matthew 15, 21-28
St Peter and St William Parishes in Naples, FL
This episode when taken in a shallow way could make us uncomfortable with a Jesus who is not compassionate toward this Gentile woman. At first, he ignores her, then he reacts in a way that seems harsh and insensitive. Some scholars suggest that this image of Jesus was made up by conservative Jewish Christians opposed to Gentile converts. So, to give their attitude of exceptionalism credibility, they made up these verses because they thought they were chosen and special. Another set of scholars believe that what is being proposed is a version of our old saying: “Charity begins at home”. A third group suggests that it is what it is; the historical Jesus is just the man of his days with a chauvinistic attitude toward women and all non-Jews. He is being corrected by this bold woman who convinces him that women and Gentiles are also to have share in God’s bounty. In the end, it probably doesn’t make any difference which of these ideas or any combination of them is close to the truth, because it seems to me that before we figure that out we ought to wonder what Jesus was doing there in that Gentile territory to begin with.
He has insisted that he has come to seek the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is known that there was a large population of Jews found north of the Galilean territory in Tyre and Sidon. Remembering that Matthew is writing this Gospel for a church that is primarily Jewish-Christians, he may well be challenging or correcting an attitude among them that is reflected in the words of Jesus. It is likely that some remnants of their old way of separation and self-importance were at work disturbing the community excluding those who were different. We may never know which of those three proposals is right, but we do know that the attitude of exceptionalism and privilege he is addressing to that early church is not a thing of the past. It is alive and well among us still.
Events in the last week have unsettled us all with the realization that the message of Jesus Christ and his inclusive vision of the loving Reign of God has not taken root in the hearts of too many across this nation. The conversion of heart, conformity to Christ and obedience to God’s will has obviously not been accepted in many lives. What is being corrected by this episode of the Gospel is an attitude of exceptionalism that is incompatible with companions of Jesus Christ. There is no “them” in our live. There is no “them” in the Kingdom of God. If we think there is, it may well end up being us. If we have conformed ourselves to Christ, there is no race, no religion, no ethnic group, and no nation more favored by God than another. No one has an exclusive claim on God’s favor and the healing, loving, blessed work of Jesus Christ. To claim some superiority or some privilege position is a complete rejection of the Gospel that reveals to us the will of God. Angry and hateful blaming of others who are not like for any evil is a way of escaping responsibility for our own sin.
We live with conflicting opposites all the time. The message of Jesus Christ offers a way to bring two distinct realties together in a central, healing, and harmonious meeting place. We are called to live in the tensions of this world regardless of the cost and asked to love as God loves. It is not our task to get everyone on the same page, to create some uniform and consistent way of thinking. It is, however, our call to be open to God’s surprises, to be a source of healing, and to challenge by our action and speech ways of thinking and attitudes that are evil. Disciples of Jesus Christ will take risks. Their thoughts and actions must catch people’s attention and cause them to think. It means we forget about what people may think of us or stop being concerned about looking silly or radical. The Gospel is radical. It is inclusive. It is powerful, and it is alive. The primary task of disciples and of our Church is learning how to discern and cooperate with God’s life-giving, loving, and all unifying plan of salvation.
Those who march in the darkness with their torches are like those who came to the Garden of Olives in the night to silence the voice of Jesus. Our presence here gives witness that the truth of God’s love will not be silenced even by the death of Jesus Christ. Real life comes after death. Light comes after darkness. Love comes after the hatred. Peace comes after violence all because we believe and hold as true that in God’s eyes we are all the same, gifted with a place in the Kingdom, worthy of respect, and never forgetting our brothers and sisters who live in fear because of the hatred of others are God’s children too.