Sunday, August 17, 2014

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

In today’s Gospel we hear the surprising exchange
between Jesus and the Canaanite woman
who asks him to heal her daughter.
What surprises us is Jesus’ seeming reluctance to help the woman
because she is not among the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
At first he ignores her request,
and then he compares her to a dog
who is not worthy to eat the bread of the children of Israel.
The woman does not blink at this insult,
but cleverly turns the tables,
saying that even dogs
get to eat the scraps that fall to the floor.
Jesus then changes his tune—
saying, “O woman, great is your faith!”—
and heals her daughter.

Early Christian and Medieval interpreters of this story
generally thought that Jesus
intended to help the woman all along,
but initially resisted to her request
so that she could show to his disciples
the depth of the faith she possessed.
Writing in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom said,
“Jesus did not want the great virtue in this woman to be hidden.
He did not speak these words to insult her, but to call her forth,
and to reveal the treasure contained in her”
(Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew 52).
It may come as no surprise to some of you
that I think that the early Christian and Medieval interpreters
are on to something in at least this regard:
Matthew does not offer this story as a learning moment for Jesus
but as a learning moment for his disciples and for us.

The disciples learn through this exchange
that even though Jesus has indeed been sent
“to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,”
God’s gift and call to faith are not restricted
to any one people, any one group.
Even those whom they considered outsiders
could possess great faith—
faith, indeed, greater than their own.
Isaiah prophesied that the foreigners
who love and serve the LORD
would be brought by God to the holy mount Zion,
to offer prayer and sacrifice in God’s Temple,
which “will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Jesus initially stresses the woman’s outsider status
only to make more striking the praise he lavishes on her faith:
as if to say that the time of universal reconciliation
foretold by Isaiah
was now arriving in the healing power
available to all through Jesus.

Jesus’ exchange with the woman also teaches us,
who are his disciples today,
that we are to be a community
in which racial, ethnic,
and other human divisions
are overcome and reconciled.
The Church is, as the Second Vatican Council taught,
to be a sacrament—a sign and cause—
of the unity of the human race;
it should be a house of prayer for all peoples.
The nations should be able to look at us and see
what a world reconciled and restored to God looks like.

We do not, unfortunately, need any help to see
what an unreconciled, unrestored world looks like.
We see the attacks on religious minorities in Iraq
by the forces of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS.
We see the other places that have been in the news this week,
in which religious, ethnic, and racial differences
have led to violence:
between Israeli and Palestinian in Gaza,
between black and white in Ferguson Missouri.
And then there are the places
that may have slipped from our sight in recent days:
Afghanistan, Egypt, Central America, Syria, Nigeria, Sudan, Ukraine.
We have seen what occurs when one group of people looks at another
and says, “you are dogs, unworthy of God’s love and healing”
and are blind to the possibility of great faith
in those who are other,
those who are different.
In the midst of this violence, we,
as individuals and as a community,
have been entrusted by Christ
with the ministry of reconciliation.

But what can we do
in the midst of such conflict and division?
How do we begin to exercise our ministry of reconciliation—
we who, ourselves, so often think
in terms of “us” and “them,”
we who, ourselves, often need
so desperately to be reconciled?
Perhaps at least a first step
would be to invite into our hearts through prayer
all those situations of conflict, hatred, and division;
asking God’s peace to descend
not only on those we see as innocent victims
but also on those we see as the sources of conflict and hatred.

Pope Francis has asked that we pray today
for Christians in Iraq
who have been driven from their homes
and in some cases killed.
As many of you have undoubtedly seen in news reports,
the homes of Christians in northern Iraq
have been marked by the ISIS militants
with the Arabic letter nūn,
which stands for Nasara,
which is the term in the Qur’an for Christians,
the followers of Jesus of Nazareth;
and these Christians have been faced
with the choice of converting to Islam
or abandoning their homes and belongings
and fleeing their cities.
Most have chosen to cling to their faith
and abandon everything else.
These people need our prayers,
as do the other persecuted religious minorities in Iraq
who have also been forced to flee their homes,
and face starvation and death.
But for the true seeds of reconciliation
to take root in our hearts,
we must also pray
for the enemies of our fellow Christians in Iraq:
those who seem to have no interest in reconciliation,
those who have committed acts of unspeakable brutality,
those who are most in need of the peace of Christ.
Our hearts must become houses of prayer for all peoples.

But this kind of prayer is hard;
to respond with love in the face of insult and injury
requires faith as great as that of the Canaanite woman.
But it is such faith, such prayer,
that will, by God’s grace, truly mark us as Nasara:
followers of Jesus of Nazareth.