Monday, August 18, 2008

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Is 56:1, 6-7; Rom 11:13-15, 29-32; Mt 15:21-28

The belief that God’s love is confined to certain people, tribe, or culture has been with us for quite a long time. The idea was ingrained deeply in the hearts of many in Jesus’ time and culture. When Jesus said in the gospel “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, he was expressing a widely held view.

Every people and culture has some kind of prejudices: The Jews believed that only they are the chosen people of God; Nazi Germany imposed their racial superiority; and before Vatican II, Catholics taught that outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation.

An old priest shared to me something interesting that happened during his high school years. His dorm mate, who happened to be a protestant, approached him one day and said, “Does it bother you that our church believes that you Catholics cannot be saved?” “Not at all,” my friend said in reply, “For actually, we, Catholics, also teach that you cannot be saved.”

Though many people today have become more open and broadminded, others still keep some prejudices in their hearts.  Some still hold that men are superior to women; that Western civilization is better than Eastern society; that whites are wiser than others, etc. Today’s gospel challenges us to expose such myths and correct such mistaken beliefs.

The Canaanite woman of the gospel should inspire us. Being a foreigner and a woman, it took her extraordinary courage to approach the company of Jesus. Canaanites were considered by Israel as pagans and as enemies doomed to be expelled from the land promised by God. Furthermore, we know that during Jesus’ time, women were not allowed to approach a rabbi or a teacher in public. No wonder the disciples of Jesus wanted to get rid of the Canaanite woman from their sight.

The Canaanite woman did not believe that God’s blessings are only for Israel. Jesus tried to challenge her faith: first, by ignoring her; second, by insisting that his mission is only for Israel; and third, by referring to her as one of the “dogs” or gentiles. The woman stood her ground and in the end Jesus praised her: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Jesus confirmed the woman’s faith that God is all embracing: He does not discriminate anybody.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah announces: “Do not let the foreigner say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people,’ for thus says the Lord, ‘I will bring faithful foreigners to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer, their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted in my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’” (56:1, 6-7). The same message is preached by Saint Paul in the second reading: The salvation of the gentiles is guaranteed because God is kind to all those who follow his commands (Rom. 11:13-15, 29-32).

If God embraces every person as a son or daughter, are we not supposed to treat one another as brothers and sisters? Should we not get rid of our biases toward those who don’t think, act and behave like us? Can we not give equal respect to those people who do not share faith with us or to those whose color is different from us?

During his student days, Mahatma Gandhi read the Gospels and saw in the teachings of Jesus the answer to the major problem facing the people of India, the caste system. Seriously considering embracing the Christian faith, Gandhi attended church one Sunday morning intending to talk to the minister about the idea. On entering the Church, the usher refused to give him a seat and told him to go and worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned. “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.”

(The story is by Ernest Munachi Ezeogu)