Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – A – August 20, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 56:1,6-7
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 15:21-28

Dear Reader,

Some people, even Catholics among them, are no comfortable with the word catholic.  They are much more comfortable with protestant or sectarian, at least in practice.  To be catholic is to be universal.  Like it or not, God is catholic.  Granted, that might not seem apparent in the early books of Hebrew Scripture when God is busy about calling and forming the Jews as a people set apart as God’s own.  Many are the mandates of separatism that, of course, can quickly translate into elitism.  Ritual impurity resulting in exclusion from temple worship could be incurred through contact with Gentiles, just as it could from touching lepers, or anyone or anything deemed unclean and therefore to be avoided.  Living in fidelity to God’s law will result in a relationship between the Jews and God that will make all the other nations marvel.

Then come proclamations of God’s catholic call like the one found in today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah.  (Read the skipped verses and you will find even the formally and formerly excluded eunuchs, along with the foreigners are included in the call.)  Through Isaiah, the Lord invites all to enter into this relationship of love, celebrated in formal worship and in lives lived in fidelity to the Covenant.  The burnt offerings and sacrifices of these once unclean will be acceptable on God’s altar.  My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Even Jesus had to change his mind, or rather, had to grow in the understanding of what the Father called him to do.  There is no shortage of quotes that state clearly during the early stages of his ministry that Jesus knew he was sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  In proclaiming the Good News, his initial intent is to restore fervor to the faith life of the Jews.  In the beginning, Jesus would have been careful about incurring ritual impurity through contact with foreigners, or any other class of people declared unclean.  Then came the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel.  Translate Canaanite foreigner, and foreigner, unclean and you will see the power in their exchange.

The woman came to Jesus in the midst of a crowd and in desperation.  Her daughter was tormented by a demon.  It doesn’t matter whether this refers to a possession by the devil, or some disease that ravished the girl.  The situation, in the mother’s eyes, was catastrophic.  If you are a parent, put yourself in the mother’s shoes.

The woman was not self-conscious, much less was she concerned about what her neighbors would think of her when she cried out to get Jesus’ attention and inform him of her plight.  It is painful to hear that Jesus paid her no heed in spite of her persistence.  She embarrassed the disciples who also seemed to feel no inclination to respond to her concerns.  They wanted Jesus to silence her and get rid of her.  Remember when the disciples were confronted by the hunger of the 5000? They saw the great need then.  They wanted Jesus to send them away so their needs could be met elsewhere.  Unlike that time, Jesus did not tell them to do something for the woman themselves.  Ignoring the woman, Jesus said his call was only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  The woman heard him and persisted.  She called him Lord, and added, please help me!

Jesus’ reply should make us wince.  It is cruel.  It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs. (Dog was the pejorative term Jews applied to the Gentiles.)  Undismayed, the woman turned the insult to her own advantage as she reminded Jesus that even if she is a dog, dogs get the leftovers from their master’s’ table.  Wow!  That, in effect, was what Jesus said, too.  He recognized that in this foreigner he found the faith response that he had been searching for from the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  Jesus assured this giant of faith that she was not a dog, but a woman.  The crumb she sought was given to her.   And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.

We hear a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry.  Now his invitation begins to be catholic and will include tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans and Canaanites.  Jesus begins to reflect the catholicity of God’s love.  That should be a comfort to most of us who are Gentiles.  If his vision had remained unchanged, despite the woman’s plea, we would be outside the pale of Jesus’ concern.

Dare I ask the question: How Catholic are you?  Before you answer, think a moment.  Whom do you think should be called to the table?  Or, rather, who should be excluded?  A great scandal from the Church in various ages, including our own, is the willingness on the part of some to exclude.  It ought not be the prerogative of any minister to refuse Eucharist to someone who presents him/herself.  I hope we are sad when we remember how recently in our history Catholic churches were segregated – and not just in the south.  Harlem had that experience.  Move beyond racism to any other classifications to which humankind are sorted.  With which of these people would you be willing to stand in solidarity at the table?  Would the presence of any of them scandalize you?

The challenge today remains the same as it has been from the beginning.  Love.  Jesus said, Love one another as I have loved you.  Love with the love that expresses itself in service.  Love with a love that is universal.  If there is an individual or class or category of people that you abhor, imagine yourself to be one of them.  Be a black, or a gay, or a transgender.  Be a Muslim or a Jew.  Be a Democrat or a Republican.  Hatred drives and divides our society.  The first few minutes of the nightly news will confirm that.  It is love that will heal and restore unity and bring peace.

Our call is to love with a love that imitates Jesus’ and is universal.  It is that love that brings the kingdom Jesus promised, the kingdom whose coming we pray for each time we pray: Our Father…

Sincerely,

Didymus

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