Twentieth Sunday of the Year
Today’s gospel passage takes us into uncomfortable territory. Journeying from the land of Pharisees to the land of Canaanites, a woman - a Gentile, and an enemy - forces Jesus to respond to the ‘bigness’ of God. Through a series of encounters with people, Pope Francis has in many ways reflected to us at the World Youth Day, and elsewhere of the wide embrace of God. No one is excluded which Pope Francis reminds us of when he says, ‘all are welcome.’ There are no exceptions. In Isaiah, God says, “‘I will bring foreigners to my holy mountain. I will make them joyful in my house of prayer, says the Lord, ‘for my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples’”.
But we know, as did Isaiah, Jesus and Paul, that it is difficult to free people from their ethnocentrism and feeling special by being part of an exclusive pack. Mary McGlone, in the National Catholic Reporter, writes, ‘Wolves move in packs and geese in flocks; we humans organize ourselves in families, tribes, nations, religions and all sorts of groups that give us identity and reciprocal responsibilities. Groups have boundaries. In Isaiah's time, Israelites identified themselves as the people of the Covenant, God's chosen people. Isaiah wanted them to realize that their privilege was not for themselves, but for the sake of the world.’ Where is Isaiah in Israel today?
Through Jesus’ encounter with this woman, the gospel is scrambled the minds of the disciples, and us, so that our eyes and ears are opened. At first, there was no genuine encounter as Jesus and his disciples spent time with like-minded people and talked about Canaanites rather than to them. Jesus’ initial response was dismissive and dehumanising as Jesus showed that she was beyond interest or concern. She challenges him about his calling. She knew, even as an outsider, that the God of Jesus holds it leaders responsible for all people on the margins. Like people who often dismissed, she cries out until she gets what she wants – despite norms prohibiting her approaching Jesus. The strikes against her do not limit her tenacity to reach beyond existential borders. Silence is not an option. Her daughter deserves healing. Many of us have grown up in our families where devaluing language was used about other people in ways that do not bear repeating – whether they were women, LGBTIQA+ people, people of colour, or living with disability. They may be grouped as ‘them,’ as lazy, as troublemakers, as lazy, as untrustworthy, and as violent. Many have been, and continue to be treated, in the painfully vivid words in today’s gospel as ‘dogs…at the master’s table.’ We have said this about refugees picking up the scraps that the dominant ones throw their way. Our challenge is to hear God’s questioning voice through this woman’s (or anyone’s) demand for attention and dignity. She keeps calling and shouting in the voices of the oppressed and conquered, in cries for justice and mercy. So many people are shouting in defiance and faith, decrying the defiled state of the world. We may want them to disperse when they are too loud, too many, too painful. We need to remember the times when our voice also cried out in defiance.
This nameless woman’s role has been crucial for many people, especially women and minority groups. She compels Jesus to change his mind and expand his understanding of where he stands in relation to her. Listening to her lowers the wall between ancient enemies. It is very cruel and offensive irrespective how much we try to soften Jesus’ words. It is never a joke but the reality is that many people have been treated like dogs in the past and present –Jewish people, LGBTIQA+ people, and people of colour. Women are still deprived of full ministry in the churches and many people [gays] are still alien in most churches, mosques and synagogues. Their liberation is still of no great concern to many bishops, rabbis and mullahs who cannot imagine such people amongst them. Thankfully, from the margins they are persistent and seek God’s liberation and intimacy. Paul too saw a special place for non-Jewish ‘outsiders’ in God’s plan. If Christ died for all - then no one can be excluded from God's all-embracing and relentless love.
Isaiah warns about boundaries Isaiah where people are treated as ‘dogs’ either in word or action. He points to God's invitation to outcasts, including sexual outcasts (omitted from today’s reading) and foreigners, to the messianic banquet. Where is Isaiah today as Palestinians live under military occupation and treated as ‘dogs.’
Jesus helps her after she creatively reworks his insult: ‘Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.’ Her rebuttal as a sign of determination when she claims there is enough for all. She believes she is not below the sight of God.
People perceived as the ‘lowest of the low’ dare to challenge the status quo and imbue it with the possibility of justice. Justice is never a given. We need to struggle for in it in solidarity with suffering and despised people. The outcast becomes a person of faith and love. God’s circle of love, mercy and compassion expands to include so-called outsiders. It reminds us that we must listen - listen to the cry of the Earth, to the poor, the outcast, to show them that their lives matter.
Jesus continues to go beyond the narrow places in his many encounters. He calls us to do the same. It means listening – something we do not always achieve. This openness to listen is not just for those in leadership but all of us. We give quick answers, justifications, rationalisations and clichés to dismiss the suffering of others. What a different it would make if we, and our leaders, were more open to listen to others. Getting close enough to see, hear, touch, smell and taste the reality of others makes the difference. By listening their stories, we may find similar but unexpressed voices within us. It can be the beginning of a new understanding and compassionate action. People, blatantly racist, prejudiced, and homophobic, have allowed walls to come down when they get to know someone they had dismissed: an Indigenous person, a Muslim person, a gay person, a drug addict. They have discovered that there is another story and another reality. This cannot occur if we talk about people, rather than talk to them. We meet ‘possibilities never dreamed of when God is allowed to speak to us through the most vulnerable or those ‘othered’ among us. Sharing of stories transform our hearts and enable us to see things differently. In the gospel story, dialogue and the sharing of stories and perspectives led into a transformative healing experience for the woman, her child, and for Jesus. The boundaries and barriers such as ethnicity, class, nationality, upbringing – that become barriers – no longer matter. What matters is the person before God—every single person. The 'dividing wall of hostility' is broken down in Christ.
A dialogue such as this can only happen in an atmosphere of honesty, humility and acceptance. While many people moved Jesus to compassion, this woman opened his mind to new possibilities. We saw how the returnees from exile in Isaiah remind us that salvation extends beyond national boundaries or any that we establish. Those who see themselves as belonging to God must understand that God's house is a place for all people. Choseness does not mean exclusion of others!
As this story depicts Jesus adjusting his plan because a woman led him to see differently, the Synod about to begin in October is a call to listen to one another and be open to the change we are called to – through the voices of women, LGBTIQ people, First Nations people from around world, and people with disabilities. We are being called to conversion, to change direction, by listening to God’s call through the voices of people who may have been seen as ‘dogs’ - the marginalised people and voice of the Earth, and pay special attention to the laity and the role of woman in maintaining the church and society. God is calling us to be open to a new mind – as Jesus did in the gospel today. Are we working for growing unity? Are there limits to our solidarity? The woman has much to teach us. Jesus needed this persistent woman to call him from a limited viewpoint. Maybe, we might also need to listen to people who have a number of strikes against them. More than others, they remind us that we share one birthright and vocation: to love and be loved as God's chosen.