Back in the early 60s I witnessed the marriage of a young couple. She was from Spain and he was from England but living in Canada. They met while he was on vacation in Spain. He took instructions and I received him into the church just before he went to Spain for his wedding. By chance they were married in a Passionist parish in Madrid.
Her first years in Canada were very difficult. Her English was not all that good and coming from Franco’s Spain she found the openness of life in Canada to be a bit overwhelming. Her greatest difficulty was dealing with her husband’s friends. They were all Protestants. In Spain she’d never met a Protestant. Being a “good” Catholic she was convinced she should have nothing to do with them. She worried she was doing something wrong when her husband had his friends over to their home and she let them in. She was stunned by the number of Protestant churches in the area – she’d never seen one before and certainly had never been in one. Socializing with other people of other faiths was all new to her. It took her quite a while to feel at ease rubbing shoulders with them. I’m talking about over 40 years ago and about a woman who came from a very closed society. Things are quite different for her today; she’d be embarrassed by her attitudes of those past days.
I thought of this couple when I read today’s gospel.
The Jewish people were convinced they were the people of God. Time and again they were told. “I will be your God and you will be My people.” Israel jealously protected its sanctity as God’s Holy People, by excluding anyone from outside its borders; they were the “foreigners”, the Goi. Foreigners were to be avoided, lest the Jews be tempted to worship strange gods and take on pagan practices. They strove to be racially and ritually pure. When Jews returned from foreign lands they would clean the soles of their sandals lest they contaminate the soil of the ‘holy land’ with foreign soil. Jesus grew up with this kind of mentality; avoid the stranger, the foreigner. This was part of His culture. As he matured He saw the limitations of such a mentality. He came to know God’s love for all people. He scandalized His own disciples with the way He associated with the Roman centurion and other non Jews and with the way He associated with woman. Bit by bit Jesus was distancing Himself from His own cultural taboos.
Today’s Gospel makes Jesus and His disciples look quite guilty of prejudice and selective charity, even bigotry. Here we have this non-Jewish woman, a foreigner, calling to Jesus for help with her sick daughter. Usually we see Jesus responding quickly and with great compassion to such requests. But Jesus turns His back on her. Basically He tells her to get lost. His disciples want Him to grant her request, not because they cared about her daughter but just to get rid of her. She is a bother, an embarrassment. So there is tension. Jesus tells her, “I haven’t come for the likes of you; My mission is to recall, recover and rededicate the lost sheep of Israel. He has come to feed the Jews, not dogs. This desperate mother will not give up; she turns His words back on Him. ‘even the dogs eat of the crumbs from the master’s table.’ Whether Jesus was testing her or struggling with His own inbred attitudes toward the outsider we don’t know, but He gives in, “woman great is your faith”, a faith He found missing in so many of His own people. Her daughter is healed instantly.
What has all this got to do with us? We are a parish family made up of people from many different lands and cultures. Some of us are cradle Catholics; some are converts to the faith. St. Paul described the first Christian communities as ‘neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ.’ But we all have an innate tendency to be selective, exclusive. We are comfortable with conformity, people of our own kind. We can resent the demands of people new to this land that their faith, their culture and customs be accepted and respected. If they want to live here then let them be Canadians, be like us.
Having heard the words of today’s Gospel and seeing Jesus’ own struggles with His own culture of exclusiveness, can we hear Him asking us to hear the requests of the Canaanites of our own families, our neighbours, our parish to be accepted for who they are and what they are. Jesus kept crossing boundaries with His welcoming words and healing touch. Can we do the same, not just within our parish family but in the living of our daily lives?
Are we willing to overcome our annoyance, our impatience with Canaanites of our own lives – people who intrude into our set ways of thinking and living and make demands on us to accept and respect them as they are – regardless of their faith or culture or life style?
In today’s gospel we see Jesus having a change of heart, we see Him overcoming His own culture of exclusiveness and superiority. As we continue to celebrate this Mass we can pray for ourselves and for each other for the grace to open our lives to all those men, women and children who come into our lives and accept and respect their many differences, differences that in many ways make us one – one as people embraced and loved as God’s own people.