Aug 12, 2011

20th Sunday - "Have pity on me Lord . . ."

Jean Drouais
"Woman, great is your faith . . ."

Is 56: 1, 6-7
Rm 11: 13-15, 29-32
Mt 15: 21-28

The United States has been referred to as a melting pot of cultures and languages. Indeed it is true the history of this nation is one of welcoming the stranger among us. The famous poem by Emma Lazarus on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York reads “. . . Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, . .” It is a beautiful image of hope and tolerance for the oppressed and frightened. My grandparents, as so many millions, came to this country hoping for a better life and they found it.

But the reality is that this nation once was divided by the scourge of slavery and torn apart by a war. Many of us are old enough to remember race riots between black and white in American cities. Today the issue of the illegal immigrant continues to wear away at our Nation’s psyche. Though we are a generally peaceful and tolerant people we also, deep down, are more comfortable with those who are like us rather than different from us.

This Sunday’s Gospel is a moment in the cultural insight of ancient times. Both the Apostles and Jesus himself recognize this difference in the woman who “cries out” for Jesus to heal her daughter. While the Apostles would rather she just leave them alone, “Send her away for she keeps calling out after us.. .” Jesus takes the time to listen to her plea – albiet in a surprising way.

What may seem on the surface to be a kind of put down of the woman, totally out of character for how we imagine Jesus would deal with others who plead for his help, could also be interpreted as loyalty and insight. Though the Caananite woman is clearly not Jewish, her heart wrenching plea for her daughter’s healing moves Jesus to go beyond cultural restrictions. The first reading from Isaiah indicates this as the will of God.

In Isaiah we read, “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants . . . and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain . . .” (Is 56: 6). It seems that the woman was one of those foreigners who joined herself to the Lord with total faith and trust that God in Jesus could do something for her daughter. So, this is more than a healing story. It is also a foreshadow of the mission to the Gentiles, to the world as a whole, that the Holy Spirit would empower the Apostles and Paul after the resurrection.

A wise person once said: “We all have prejudices. What we do with them is the important issue.” Jesus was just reflecting the focus of his mission to the Jews but did not let that mission prevent him from the higher value of compassion and love. To her loyalty, her faith in him, Christ granted her request to heal her daughter: “O woman, great is your faith,” Jesus acclaimed.

So, the readings this Sunday call us to reflect not only on our own prejudices, or at least our resistance to seek out or respond to those different from us. Jesus’ belief in the dignity of every human person moved him to reach out to lepers, the blind, to women, to the multitude of the poor, to this Caananite woman, and to recognize that all deserve a hearing.

Our laws, and correctly so, say that one must enter this country by legal means. This is clearly one of the most emotional social issues today. But the Church also recognizes the human needs of people. The need for food, for shelter, for clothing, for safety and that principle, which puts the human person as a greater good drives the mission of the Church to reach out to all who are in need. But, it is a tough call as we hold the value of due process and the law as a great good.

The Gospel today recognizes the dignity of the person, regardless of social status or cultural limitation, as a great good that Jesus’ responds to. It was not just her need for a healthy child but an encounter with faith in Jesus. God made us all in his image and our call is to form our lives with Gospel values.

When we find ourselves uncomfortable with people different from us, what choice do we make? Do we ignore them? Mumble behind their backs about “those kind?” Avoid them all together? Or do we make an effort to see those who are different as a reflection of the living God?

The Eucharist is a moment of unity between all who celebrate it. With Christ in our midst, we proclaim our loyalty to him, we seek his healing and forgiveness, and we say to those around us that we are brothers and sisters in the Lord. Let’s not be afraid to push the envelope and go beyond our comfort level knowing that if we plead with the Lord for our own needs, as the Caananite woman, that our loyalty will be acknowledged: "Great is your faith!"