20th Sunday in Ordinary Time A – August 16, 2020
Our gospel today presents the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman whose daughter he healed. Upon first listening to the account, it may simply sound like a miracle story. A deeper look at it reveals a profound lesson of acceptance, discipleship and faith – a lesson that is more timely today than ever.
Take a look around our Cathedral this afternoon. It really is a magnificent space in which to worship and pray, isn’t’ it? It’s also very good to be back in this space after such a long absence earlier this year. … But back to the task at hand. Take a look around you – a good look. Besides the person sitting next to you, what do you see? What captures your attention? The stained glass windows? Perhaps the beautiful paintings and mosaics? The altar? The tabernacle? … Did any of you notice the walls? Not what’s on them – but just the walls? Probably not. They’re all around us. But in some respects, they fade into the background, don’t they? Yet, they are everywhere we look.
Let’s talk about walls for a moment. What’s the purpose of walls? They hold up a ceiling. They keep out the elements and provide a shelter. They form a structure in which people can gather. Robert Frost once wrote a poem entitled “The Mending Wall.” In it, he wrote these words, “Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.”
Today’s gospel poses a question to us. As individuals – as Christians – as a Church, what type of walls do we build? What’s the purpose of the walls that we construct? Do we use them to gather and include? Do we use them to keep out and exclude?
The woman who approaches Jesus in today’s gospel was despised by the Jewish community because of her race. She was not only a Gentile but a descendent of the Canaanites, one of Israel’s oldest and most despised enemies. As a Canaanite and a woman, she was viewed as nothing better than a “dog” by the “righteous,” who saw themselves as somehow superior to her in the eyes of God.
Given this reality, it’s all the more surprising that despite Jesus’ uncharacteristic rebuff of her, the woman was determined to engage him and not in the least bit put off by his initial response. In so doing, look what Jesus discovered. In her selfless concern for her sick daughter, the woman reveals that more than anything else, she is simply a loving mother seeking the well-being of her child. And in her resolve to approach Jesus in the face of likely rejection, the depth of the woman’s faith and trust is palpable.
It is because of that selfless love and authentic faith that Jesus healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter despite the taboos that he broke in doing so. The real miracle of that encounter, then, becomes much more than a physical healing. In tearing down the walls that separated Gentiles and Jews, the prophet Isaiah’s vision in today’s first reading of a single human family, bound by what is right and just, begins to be realized.
So, how does this gospel speak to our experiences today? Essentially, Jesus demands that we look beyond labels and stereotypes to realize that every one of us is a child of God, brothers and sisters all. Jesus calls us to make places in our society, in our communities, in our hearts for those whom the “righteous” exclude and marginalize. He challenges us to tear down walls and to welcome one another as brothers and sisters. Jesus asks us to receive new immigrants who walk through the doors of this sacred space – even if our parents and grandparents who immigrated here years ago weren’t received as kindly as they may have hoped to have been. Jesus reminds us that through the power of the sacraments, especially the sacrament of reconciliation with its healing grace, even the greatest of sinners is given a second chance. Who are we, then, to exclude?
To all those souls struggling to make something of their lives, who seek forgiveness, who are trying to put the pieces of their lives back together despite the ostracism, rejection and ridicule they encounter, Jesus example is clear and his words are simple and direct. He says, “Come. Open your hearts and your lives to the forgiveness that flows from the cross. Be nourished by my life given to you in the Eucharist. Walk hand in hand with your brothers and sisters in faith – all of them – and continue to build up the Church.”