Matthew 15:21-28, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Never in my life has the question of race featured so much in public discourse as it has in the last week. Aside from the usual racist rhetoric, which reveal deep currents of prejudice within our society, what has been worrying is the normalisation of hatred directed towards people who are marginal. This normalisation of hatred is keenly felt not only in the acts of violence in Charlottesville and Barcelona, but also in the words of numerous political leaders.
Against this trend of normalising hatred, our Gospel reading presents a Christian paradigm for encountering the marginal person. Jesus meets a Canaanite woman — thus, a person who is doubly marginal on account of her ethnicity and gender. Not only is she a foreigner, she is also a woman. At first, Jesus insists on his ministry to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This Canaanite woman seems unperturbed by Jesus’ insulting reference to house-dogs, but remains kneeling at his feet. She is persistent in trying to show Jesus that she is just like the lost sheep he wants to serve. If Jesus has really came for the lost, the downtrodden, the forgotten, she wants Jesus to acknowledge that here she is one like them! Kneeling at Jesus’ feet, pleading, she shows she indeed is one of the lost and that she claims Jesus’ care and love. Jesus then changes his stance towards her and even his idea of ministry. His heart expands to include her!
This scriptural account suggests to us how we might want to encounter the stranger. First, our encounter with the foreigner always begins with this attitude of tentativeness. We need to assert our own identity and unique mission, and at the same time learn to suspend our prejudices. We need to steer away from two extremes; i.e. the rhetoric that we are all the same, or much worse, the rhetoric of hate. Second, we need to learn to listen and to speak respectfully to those who express views radically different from our own. There is such a dearth of respectfulness in our listening and speaking in our society today. Like the woman, speaking respectfully involves challenging set views with intelligence and humour. Like Jesus, listening respectfully involves the capacity to allow our views to be interrogated and challenged. Third, all this leads in the direction of conversion of our selves. Our hands were not made for violence, but for service. Our hearts were not made for hatred, but for love.
Thus, our scriptural readings this weekend invite us to reflect on our relationship to the foreigner in our midst. At the heart of our readings is this remarkable insight expressed in our first reading today, written after the Jewish people were exiled in Babylon, that our Lord is God of all people. Isaiah expresses uses the image that God will bring together all the different people to one mountain. God will listen to them there and God will make them joyful in [God’s] house of prayer. We who are called Christian share in this ministry of consolation, bringing joy to all whom we meet.