Mass readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 56.1, 6-7 Psalm 67.1-2, 4-7 Romans 11.13-15, 29-32 Matthew 15.21-28
People are searching for Christ; they may not know it – hunting for answers to their problems, resolutions to their crises; looking for something, and as I said, really for someone who is Christ. Many are not people of faith; many more are of some faith, Christian or otherwise, but they are outside this community of faith, the Church. For them, this is really outside their world, and among us they are foreigners even iif they are be third generation Canadians. In relation to Christ and his Church, they have come from away. How do we receive them? What lesson do we have in today’s gospel?
The unmistakeable theme of our readings is that of welcome to those outside the community of faith, who come with sincerity to Christ and seek his mercy, his grace, his blessing, his healing; those quote “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah puts it.
We have a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans where he makes it clear that he understands them to be Gentiles, that is non-Jews in the main, in that early Christian community; and that they now share in the spiritual obligations that once only pertained to the Jews. Spiritual obligations, not dietary, not customary, not with regard to the cult of the Jerusalem Temple or the practices of the synagogues, but rather those obligations to keep the sacraments, and to live in obedience to the Christian moral code. Do this, and membership in the body of Christ is yours and mine – no one is born to it, it is not a matter of ethnicity or race.
These readings all prepare us to hear the famous story of the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus seeking an exorcism for her daughter who is being tormented by a demon. Yet, this account is so spare in description, its hard to say that this foreign woman has joined herself to the Lord in the manner the prophet Isaiah describes, or that she will become a Gentile follower of Jesus as the Romans of Paul’s letter had. All we have is the little verbal sparring between the two, with Jesus coming across, at least to us today, as a bit of jerk; but then he relents and gives the woman what she wants – perhaps, we’re to understand Jesus as having a bit of fun with her, or making his resistance a little test. Anyway, in the end he salutes her faith, and then sends her on her way having cast out the demon from her daughter. We know nothing of her after this.
To begin making comparison to our day, let’s consider the situation of this story. The disciples are not in the lands of Israel, but are off on some kind of retreat, but to be clear, they are not on a mission trip. The Canaanite woman is a local who comes to where Jesus is staying. She first encounters the apostles; and what we know of them is that they are an argumentative group, always in debate as to just what the gospel is about; who Jesus is.
And we know they are very concerned with the rescue and reconstitution of Israel as a nation-state, a political actor in the world. Is Jesus to be the new king? If the Messiah, how will Jesus fulfil their ambitions, their goals? So, their discussion is about how to save Israel. This foreign woman, what has she to do with the business at hand? They try to send her away, but she is persistent.
Today, there is vast variety of Christians: Catholics, Protestants (liberal and conservative), Evangelicals, and so on. All of these have some kind of faith; there are those who argue that being Christian and being a member of Western Civilization as it exists today are effectively synonymous such that the Church really should merge itself with the society, adopting its customs, its fashions, accommodating its morality. And so, like the days of Saint Paul, there is debate, argument, and conflict among all to define what it is to be a Christian.
And then there are those completely outside this, who wander in, some on an intentional search for answers; and they know little or nothing about these arguments and conflicts. They don’t see it, or if they do, like the woman coming to where Jesus was staying, seeing the Apostles in one of their intense discussions, they can’t make any sense of it. Like the Canaanite woman, people aren’t looking for the debate among the disciples, they are looking for Jesus because they’ve heard things. They don’t know for sure that any of what they’ve heard is true, but they’re at the end of their rope; things are bad, and their own gods have failed them. This is something we need always to be mindful of in our encounters with those who come looking for the Lord.
As a priest of the Church, my first concern is to bring Jesus to people; and frankly, not the Catholic Church (that is something to discuss later). When I’m asked about the faith by the earnest inquirer, my starting place isn’t with how we’re different or better than the other options. When someone is looking for the peace of Christ, even if they don’t name it as such, my first question shouldn’t be, “are you Catholic?” Baptized or not, people come looking for Jesus. Many of us who were raised Christians, didn’t actually go looking for him until much later in life. A baptism certificate doesn’t tell us much about a person’s faith. My starting place with the inquirer, the searcher, the troubled person looking for help, is “how are you?” and “how can I help you?”
That brief exchange Jesus has with his disciples is curious. I get the impression he’s saying what the disciples are thinking – he holds up a mirror to them when he says he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.
They want the woman sent away; and they can point to the instructions Jesus gave them in their ministry. You might remember, he sent them out two by two, and instructed them to only go to the lost of Israel, not to the Samaritans, not to the Gentiles. The mission was to reconstitute Israel, as per what they are always talking about.
But this isn’t a matter of an apostle going to a Canaanite town; rather someone coming to Christ, drawn to plain truth he embodies. We have ministries here that really are Catholic to Catholic – taking the Eucharist to shut-ins is an obvious example; my going to anoint folks in hospital another. However, today, there is the important ministry to the stranger in faith, those who are foreigners to the Church, don’t understand our language, our customs, don’t know when to stand up or to sit down in the mass, are confused by our genuflecting and bowing.
Yet they come.
The Church as the new Israel finds itself trying to gather the many lost sheep, the many baptized who have no formation, no sense of what a Catholic faith is really about. I well understand a preoccupation with the lost sheep that keeps us from contemplating what we are to do with the stranger to Christ who comes unbidden looking for him here. We’re trying to figure out how to get people to come, what do we do with those who just show up?
I remember my days at St. Pat’s downtown; I was then learning the Catholic ropes as it were. I met a lot of people wandering into the church at the corner of Victoria and King; many weren’t Catholic. They were looking for him – one was a protestant minister, who after many months came to tell me she knew he was there, in the Eucharist, in the tabernacle. What we had done for her was to simply make it possible for her sit in that space and contemplate that profound mystery; and then, when she was ready, to talk. A few years later, she was received into full communion with the Church.
We have a lot of concerned moms and dads out there today – many are nominal Catholics, others nominal Christians, others fall into that curious category of being “none” in terms of religious affiliation; their children are possessed or in danger of being captured by some very poisonous, destructive ideas being peddled as truth in our schools, in our culture. There is such heartbreak among those who’ve lost their children to these; who’ve seen their children damaged by them, even physically so. Others live in fear for their children because of this. This isn’t rocky road of adolescence, but of evil actively preying on them, coming too often in the form of an adult authority, to rob them of their innocence, seduce and destroy them.
So, they come looking for something or someone who is about truth, about reality, about keeping oneself rooted in the hard, difficult facts of life, but also offering hope, joy and true fulfilment that comes of understanding the place of suffering, and the need of faith in human life.
That’s Jesus Christ; and true, good religion, far from being a fantasy, a delusion, or a denial of reality in all its dimensions of suffering and death, is one that shows you reality in its fullness which is much more than that. Our God is the fullness of “being” and He is more than suffering and death. The fullness of reality is something we find in Christ who shows us how suffering prompts us to love of others, how death spurs us to lives of justice and truth.
Yes, there is a lot of work to do to fix up the Church, here in Dundas and around the world. T.S. Eliot famously wrote that the Church is forever decaying and being rebuilt, and that is necessary work so that the faith is transmitted generation to generation and to every corner of Creation. But we don’t do this for the sake of the Church herself, but to keep on with task of bringing people into Christ’s presence, and then let them spar with the master, argue with the teacher, let them make their case before our merciful judge, and learn that he is truly the Lord of all.