Behind – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Matthew 15:21-28, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Allow me to briefly explain tonight’s troubling Gospel. According to the commentaries, the Matthean community had two voices: the particularist and the universalist. The particularist voice in the community taught that Jesus came to the world to save first “the children of Israel”; so Jews first, then the Gentiles. On the other hand, the universalist voice taught that Jesus came to save everyone regardless of ethnicity. Today’s Gospel conflates those two voices into one story.

The Canaanite woman was a double-whammy; twice marginal. First, she was a woman in a very paternalistic world, “menstrual from birth,” as the Talmud labeled women. Second, she was unclean by virtue of being a Gentile. “Dogs” was what Jews called Gentiles. Hence, “it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” This echoes the particularist voice in the Matthean community.

But the story ends beautifully. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus praises nobody for great faith except this woman. She bears that singular honor. She is so desperate for an exorcism that she even refers to herself and her child as “dogs”, the precise way the Jews invalidated her ilk. “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” “Aso na po, Ser, kung aso. Kaya kahit tira-tira lang po ng inyong himala, Ser, para po sa anak ko, kung mamarapatin po ninyo, Ser.” Only a mother would willingly sink herself into the pits of ridicule for her children’s survival. Fortunately, the Lord saw beyond the double-whammy that the Canaanite was. He saw in her a mother in pain.

It is good to think of us as “catholics”, because our name denotes—not just connote, but denotes—that we belong to the universalist voice, not the particularist. “Catholic” is from the Greek kata, meaning, “with respect to,” and holos, “the whole”. Together, kata-holos means universal, “with respect to the whole.” For us, Jesus is Savior of all. Being Catholic binds us to God whom we profess as having a universal salvific will. “Universal” designates the absence of ethnic and gender considerations. It also designates the absence of order in saving action. So regardless of race or gender, and regardless of any kind of order—social, hierarchical, economic—God saves all in Jesus. For God is beyond ethnicity, beyond gender, and beyond human clout. This universality drives our faith, gives reason to our religious freedom, and unites us with the whole world.

Or at least, it should…

…because we still have a long, long way to go in claiming God’s universal salvific will by fully operationalizing it. I must concede though that we’re better off in universality now than we were twenty years ago. But to use Cardinal Martini’s time frame, the Catholic Church still lags 200 years behind the pace that humanity has already clocked in; and I’d say, especially in the area of inclusivity. Inclusivity is universality incarnated. Inclusivity is universality operationalized, enfleshed. On the one hand, men of hierarchy are cautious to avoid a free-for-all in the Church if they are hasty and injudicious with inclusivity. It would be like returning to the chaos, the tohu-wa’vohu preceding creation, the “waste and void”. On the other hand, however, the hierarchs could use a little self-protectiveness, as though the Spirit were not an agent of the Church, as though human hands were the only hands that steer Peter’s boat. Because of many ecclesiastical phobias, we have moved too sluggishly in refreshing our narrative as a 21st century community. Sometimes I feel the hierarchs are really more fearful rather than cautious, especially regarding issues that need upgrading: the role of women in our ecclesiality and our ecclesiology, for instance; the impact of third-world Catholicism to the predominantly white, western hierarchy; the paternalism in our liturgy that borders on chauvinism; the pastoral care of divorcees, of the separated, of gays, lesbians, and transgendered who are no less devout than are the married, the single-blessed, and the heterosexuals. Sadly, in our Church’s checkered past, even hierarchs have been instrumental in institutionalizing the myopia that decelerates universality and promoting discrimination. And we’ve couched this in holy language which I call, “spiritualese”.

Never mind the thirties through the seventies—that whole era when our vision was still adjusting to the new lens of Vatican II, and we had to feel our way through modernity. But since the eighties and thereafter, information technology has exploded. We now see and know better the human lot—about gender, and women, social and global strife, about the hegemony of the northern hemisphere over the southern, the west over the east, the white over the non-white, the religious over the lay. So, now, we have very little excuse for walling our Church away from the “chaos” of the world. For me, dear sisters and brothers, there is no deeper chaos than that which disguises itself as “religious” order, or “holy” order.

“Send her away for she keeps calling after us,” said the men in the Lord’s inner circle. I presume, when his friends hurried on ahead, our Lord stayed behind, because “behind” was where the mother was, where she needed him to be. If our Church should ever be “left behind,” let it be because back there is where the people are whom the world has abandoned. But when the Church is left behind due to self-indulgence, then we have truly lost our way, and, pardon the expression, “gone to the dogs.”

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