August 18th, 2002
Larry Gillick, S.J.
Deglman Center for Ignatian Spirituality
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|Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
So as to celebrate the Eucharist more heartily we prepare by reflecting first upon a picture of Jesus and his disciples. Here we see Jesus walking rather quickly as if he had one important thing on his mind and the disciples are a few steps behind trying to catch his words and catch up with him. They keep turning to each other in puzzlement, saying, “What did he say? Did he really mean that?” Then abruptly, he halts.
Not being listened to is one thing, but being excluded and rejected are our deepest fears. We pray with the comfort of God’s wide embrace of us and the invitation to extend that inclusion to all whom God continues calling. We can ask for an increase of the gift of Faith as we increase in the awareness of the desperate needs of our families, neighbors and those who are different from us.
The First Reading for this Sunday comes from the early verses of the third section of the prophet Isaiah. The preceding fifteen chapters have been devoted to the prophet’s consoling his people who have been in exile. The return to their land is also an invitation to welcome others into their religious experiences with God and expressions of that relationship in their cultic observances. The doors of the temple are being widened to include and welcome “foreigners”.
Specific territory defined different beliefs and thus traditions which were distinctive and alienating. God is extending the meaning of just who belongs to God and for whom is God’s house.
In the Gospel we see and hear Jesus after he has had a confrontation with the Pharisees. They have been asking why his disciples fail to follow the ancient religious traditions. Jesus has told them, “This people honors me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me.” He walks away from them heading out and beyond. A Canaanite woman, that is a person from a different territory and religion, makes a mother’s deep-felt request for her daughter’s recovery. Jesus pays her no attention.
The disciples catch up with Jesus, moved by the woman’s prayer and they ask him to send her away with her request answered. Jesus makes a statement reflective of Matthew’s basic theme; Jesus has come first for the lost sheep of Israel. The woman herself bows down and makes her plea again. Jesus seems rude in replying that it wouldn’t be right to give to her what is intended for God’s children and throw it to, (the Greek word here is “puppy” “dogs”. She has a wonderful comeback, which indicates that she too belongs somewhere in God’s family.
The disciples witnessed the confrontation with the leaders and elders about religious practices and now they witness Jesus dealing compassionately with a woman who doesn’t belong. She manifested faith while the Pharisees manifested heartless rigidity. So who belongs? Who are the “foreigners” now? Jesus is the new land and the new way.
These disciples of Jesus have grown up according to their traditions, as do we all. One of these was to keep a distance between themselves and anyone else not like them. Now, instead of Magi coming from the far distant lands in worship, the disciples see another form of Epiphany with a close, but foreign neighbor coming in need and homage. Jesus who came for the lost sheep of Israel reveals again that he has come to gather his entire flock into one holy “house of prayer for all peoples.”
Hatred, suspicion, exclusion and disinterest all need distance and barriers. When I was young the distance which kept us safe from “those others” was Twenty-eighth Street. They were not Irish, nor Catholic and they played strange games and just were weird. Good fences, walls, barbed wire, and Demilitarized Zones do not make good neighbors. They tend to make good stereotypes.
We can love distinctions as a way of identifying ourselves by who we are not. One day, while attending a baseball game in Milwaukee as a youth, I began wondering about how many of the thirty-two thousand people watching with me would I like as friends. How long would it take me to exclude those I would not like and on what grounds would I include and exclude. As you might suspect, the game was not very interesting, but my wonderings were. Near the end of the game, I decided that if I kicked out of the stadium all those whom I found something wrong with or strange or different -- yup, I would be all alone eventually.
As we know in our present times, religion has been dividing, alienating and oppressing various groups of God’s family. Religious wars are not new in our history. Who is right? Who has the right books, traditions and practices?
The more important question coming out of these readings today is about who has faith more than certainty. Who allows faith to turn to God so as to include a reverence and acceptance for all that seems strange, untraditional, new and or unlike us? These readings can cause us to check how wide our embrace is compared to that of Jesus and compared to that to which we are invited. Jesus spanned the distance between God and us so that we might span the distance among all of God’s family.
“With the lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.” Ps.
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