This homily is based on the readings for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time in cycle A as assigned by the Lectionary of the Roman Catholic Church. The links will take you to the readings posted on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.
Humans tend to define boundaries. Despite songs from old musicals that proclaim “Don’t fence me in;” despite the protestations of teenagers that their parents are too restrictive in their rules; in spite of the proclamations that the human spirit longs for freedom, people like to know there’s a boundary out there beyond which you shouldn’t go. Walls, fences are boundaries that give a sense of being protected from the unknown. Even in sports terms like “out of bounds” denote something bad. Humans get uncomfortable with ideas or people who are perceived as enemies outside our borders. Humans like boundaries because walls, fences and border checkpoints give a sense of security. The alien, the thief is on the other side of the boundary which will keep him out and us “in” where our life is secure.
This weekend we were reminded by news accounts that it was the 50th anniversary of the erection of the wall that separated East and West Germany, the Iron Curtain. It was built to keep people from getting out, to protect the purity of a whole political system. In our own time we hear calls to erect an impenetrable fence along our southern border to keep out the threat of illegal aliens who could bring down our way of life.
Walls can be something other than physical barriers, too. People erect ideological boundaries; humans put up the limits imposed by religious tradition or dogma. No matter what kind of boundary people erect, the purpose of the wall, fence or ideology is to limit who is “in”, who is “o.k.” or in “right order” with the group and who is enemy or not worthy to share the life of the “insider.”
In today’s gospel, we hear about a woman who’s trying to break down boundaries. The woman with the sick daughter is an outsider, a threat to the purity of religious tradition. The woman with the sick daughter is seeking to cross the threshold, a boundary and be included among those who experience God’s mercy. The natural reaction of the apostles is one of fear, maybe even revulsion. UGH! She’s one of those people! A foreigner out to change our way of life. Inclusion in the realm of God’s presence is all she is asking, not the destruction of a people. She wants to be a beneficiary of the good life God’s chosen people enjoy. Her story is repeated in our own day in the stories of immigrants to our land. Her story is repeated in the longing of people of every language, religious tradition and way of life to know God and that God cares for his human creation, desiring them to be happy and full of life. The woman who challenges Jesus to rethink his position is seeking to be included in the embrace of God’s love. Yet the followers of Jesus find that threatening!
It seems that Jesus and this woman have a sort of hostile exchange. Or at least a sarcastic exchange of ideas is batted back and forth. “Please, Jesus! Just a scrap of food!” “You’re less than human!” “Oh, yeah! At least humans take care of their pets! How about God?”
This isn’t really hostility being exhibited. To our ears it sounds like it, but to a Jew of Jesus day it’s called debate, a kind of dialogue. Jesus and the woman “dialogue,” they exchange ideas, and in the process discover the deeper truth together. Each of their boundaries that provided them security is stretched to reach the unlimitedness of God’s mercy. Jesus doesn’t loose, the woman doesn’t win…both come to a new understanding that crossing a border doesn’t mean truth is threatened or a way of life under attack, but that life becomes richer, more full, more like God’s life when we let ourselves be stretched and admit that God’s love is pretty dang big…bigger than we can imagine and we’d best stop trying to ration that love in our lives in how we view people different from ourselves.
Jesus says the woman has great faith. Be careful. Jesus doesn’t mean great faith equals “strong” faith, unshakable faith (although the woman has that, too). In this instance great means more something like “expansive” great means willing to let our preconceived ideas be challenged and expanded to include new insights, a sense of being secure in faith while being willing to grow in our faith. A person of “great faith” is open to the possibility that God’s mercy is unlimited and found in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of people, even those who are not “insiders” to the Gospel of Jesus. People of great faith are willing to reach out and befriend “people of every race, language and way of life” as we pray in one of our Eucharistic Prayers (Eucharistic Prayer II for Reconciliation).
So, if we want to know the love of God, we must want to be willing to see God desires all humanity, Jews, Muslims, people of different spiritualities, that is every human being be saved through Jesus Christ. Just because a few people in another religion act less than human, don’t write off the group as a threat. Just because a group of people haven’t been gifted with what we know, that doesn’t put them beyond salvation. The Gospel calls us to love without boundaries, not to withhold the compassion of God from someone we deem unworthy. For then we’ll miss out on the compassion of God revealed in this Eucharist. We give thanks in the Eucharist that we’ve been blessed to have discovered God’s mercy fully revealed in Jesus Christ. You and I rejoice that we have been chosen to share in the work of healing the world of all its divisions, the work of abolishing boundaries that give a false sense of security.
© 2011 Rev. Joseph C. Rascher