Aug 16, 2014

20th Sunday: Beyond the boundaries

"Please Lord . . . O woman, great is your faith."

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

A very endearing drawing of the famed comic character Charlie Brown depicts Charlie receiving a hug from his beloved dog Snoopy.  Charlie then appears happier than ever and Snoopy has closed his eyes in admiration.

Below the image is a caption: “Be of good cheer, Charlie! For after all is said and done, there is someone who loves you – and this ‘someone’ is only a very humble, peanut sized representative for One much greater than he.”

Today’s Gospel story about the foreign gentile woman who pleads with Jesus for the healing of her daughter, and in particular Jesus’ initial response to her, is likely among the most controversial depictions of our Lord in the Gospels.  Revealing the prejudice of the time towards those who were not Jewish, Jesus first ignores her desperate plea: “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David . . .” We may be disturbed by his initial reaction which on one level seems dismissive.

But then the clincher from the very mouth which spoke: “Blessed are the meek . . . the merciful . . . the single hearted.” Jesus turns and states to the desperate woman: “it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Dogs? Did Jesus really refer to this Canaanite woman as a dog? This is no sweet Snoopy who shows affection for his master but seemingly an insult – or is it?

Still, she continues her plea to which Jesus finally replies: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”  While we are grateful for this sign of compassion from Jesus we may still wonder about his initial treatment of her. 

It is clear the disciples are disturbed by her very plea: “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” In other words, “She’s not one of us so how dare she request what is rightly ours.” If Jesus seemed dismissive by his silence the disciples appear blatantly upset and Jesus himself seems to reflect this belief, or so it may seem.  But, did he simply reveal the very prejudice of his time which the disciples clearly held? As always more is at work here.

In our first reading from Isaiah we hear a beautiful image of God’s intention to widen the circle of inclusion: “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants . . . them I will bring to my holy mountain . . . a house of prayer for all peoples.” For all peoples is especially important to understand.  God doesn’t just throw words around without purpose.  Isaiah’s revelation of God’s desire means what is says: “all” and not “some” are welcome in God’s house.

As the ministry of Jesus expanded in its scope some scripture scholars, and rightly so, imply that Jesus himself grew in understanding of the full extent of his mission. While that is likely true, Jesus’ own disciples may have been both shocked and inspired all the more. Their own understanding of Jesus’ mission in which they would share would challenge their own limited preconceptions as the “chosen people” deserving of special privileges. 

The woman’s persistence pays off and Jesus sees right through with compassion as a higher motivator for his healing than the false walls of prejudgment. Isaiah’s vision of God’s all inclusive “house of prayer” is expressed so beautifully in the healing granted to this woman’s child.  Her faith convicted her, fearless and desperate, to plead to the only One she knew could grant her request, spoken in love and respect. Faith knows no boundaries.  

This was not the first time Jesus reached out to the wider circle: the Samaritan woman at the well, the Roman centurion, the parable of the Good Samaritan, the lepers and the blind who did not follow the proper laws, the woman caught in adultery, etc.

The early Christians needed to learn this basic new vision of what God is like as did the Apostles as the church expanded throughout the gentile world. As more and more non-Jews embraced this new way the limitations we place on others is challenged. 

For our present day lives as Catholic Christians we are perhaps more accustomed and have come to fully accept the universal inclusion of the Christian faith.  While all are members of the Church formally yet I think our Gospel story this Sunday and others like it deserves our personal reflection. Our own feelings towards human differences or towards those who may be wandering in search of a renewed Catholic faith need to be examined. While we cannot usually control our thoughts, we can control our words and actions. This example shows that Jesus both spoke and acted in a way that rocked the boat once again beyond the artificial boundaries of his culture.

Conversion to this vision of God which we are challenged to make our own is a daily process.  But it may be good to remind ourselves that we can do a ton of good for others who pay attention to who we are and those who watch silently on the fringes. We can include or exclude we can judge or forgive or we can look the other way with the silent treatment or inspire one another with our words and actions. “Others” don’t have to be beyond our parishes or our faith.  They may be right next to us in the pews or beside us in places of work or family life. For us pastors it may be our own parishioners in some cases.

Without words, the affectionate Snoopy said more to the appreciative Charlie Brown simply by a gesture which expressed his feeling on Charlie’s dignity.  God’s way must be our own.
O God, who have prepared for those who love you
good things which no eye can see,
fill our hearts, we pray, with the warmth of your love,
so that, loving you in all things and above all things,
we may attain your promises,
which surpass every human desire.
(Collect of Mass)