Matthew 15:21-28, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
First, let’s explain the most troublesome spot in the Gospel where Jesus seemed to have referred to the Canaanite woman as a “dog.” According to some scholars, Matthew’s community back in the day had two voices, like two schools of thought: the particularist and the universalist. Christians with the particularist voice believed that Jesus came to save first “the children of Israel,” the Jews. And only subsequently, non-Jews, or Gentiles. But there were also Christians with the universalist voice. They believed that Jesus came to save everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. Matthew brings these two voices together into one story, as we read in today’s Gospel.
The Canaanite woman was not Jewish. Back then, Jews regarded Gentiles as impure. Worse, they called them “dogs.” Can you imagine? But we shouldn’t really be shocked because we, Filipinos, also use funny names for people of other races, right? So, when this “dog” begged Jesus to exorcise her possessed daughter, Jesus was supposed to have said, “It is not right to take the food of the children (meaning the Jews) and throw it to the dogs (meaning the Gentiles).” See, we’re really not sure if Jesus really said this. But bible scholars say that here, Matthew echoes the particularist voice in the community.
But the Canaanite woman presses Jesus for a healing. And it worked! Jesus praises her for having “great faith.” She was so desperate for Jesus’ healing that she accepted the insult and referred to herself and her child as dogs. “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” It sounds more compelling in Tagalog: “Aso na po kung aso, Ser. Kahit tira-tira lang po ng kapangyarihan n’yo, Ser, pahingi na lang po.” Only a loving and desperate mother would take ridicule upon herself if it meant her children’s survival. And she got her wish. Jesus looked beyond her ethnicity, and saw instead, a mother in pain.
Based on our name, “catholic,” you and I are supposed to be part of the universalist voice, not the particularist. Jews won’t be saved first just because Jesus was a Jew, no. We believe that all who are worthy will be saved, regardless of race or creed, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or social status. “Catholic” is from the Greek kata, meaning, “with respect to,” and holos, “whole”. Kata–holos means universal, “with respect to the whole.” Being Catholics, we believe in God’s universal salvific will; universal, meaning, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, etc. Furthermore, universal also means that there’s no “priority number” or “order” in God’s saving action, like Jews first, “dogs” next; Catholics first, Protestants second, Muslims, third, etc. No. God saves all who are kind, humanitarian, Christ-like, all together. So, this universalist voice, this kata-holos, this “respect for the whole,” is what drives our faith as truly Catholic.
Or at least, it should…
…because we still have a long way to go in being truly Catholic. Sure, we’re better off in universality today than 20 years ago. But like Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini said, the Catholic Church is 200 years behind the times. Universality means wider and wider inclusivity, not narrower and narrower self-protective exclusivity. For me, Pope Francis is today’s shining model for the universalist voice. Unfortunately, many Catholics, including priests and bishops, do not hide their hatred of Francis. Remember this strange priest recently excommunicated by the Bishop of Sacramento, Jeremy Leatherby? He’s not alone. Many Catholics like him insist that our faith must run on old “software.” They’re terrified of “updating.” Because updating your theology today means really dealing with the world’s trajectory towards inclusivism. We can no longer skirt around inclusivity especially when we profess faith in a God’s with a universal salvific will! Still, many of Pope Francis’ detractors scoff at inclusivity because it is alien, impure, sinful; I guess, the same way Jews regarded Gentiles as dogs.
“Send her away for she keeps calling after us,” said the men in the Lord’s inner circle. I could see it in my imagination: when his friends hurried on ahead, Jesus must have stayed behind. For “behind” was where the desperate mother was. “Behind” was where she needed her Lord to be. If ever our Catholic Church should be “behind,” I really pray it’s because back there is where people need us to be, people whom the world has otherwise abandoned. But when the Church is left behind the times because her members want to stay with the old software of self-indulgence, sexism, elitism, clericalism, bigotry, and self-righteousness, then not only are we behind. We might have actually lost our way.
So, let us continue praying, dear sisters and brothers, that God bestows on us the grace of an ever deepening sense of the “universal.” Because that is who we are. That’s our name: Catholics.
*image from the Internet