Tuesday, August 15, 2017

You are of my tribe

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we often fall into the act of setting up barriers between ourselves and others. I think,  if we’re honest, we have to admit that we are basically ‘tribal’– we belong to ethnic and linguistic groups, families and classes; and each ‘tribe’ to which we belong has its own boundaries and limits, rules and expectations–and quite honestly, "we like that"! There are many alluring benefits of our ‘tribalism.’ We find strength and safety in our ‘tribe:’ we know exactly where we stand. It’s good to know there are people who think and believe as we do. However, there are some problems: We get pretty defensive about our ‘tribes’. We believe we’ve got it right, we’ve got it all figured out, we’re convinced that God is on our side and we can’t imagine anyone not thinking or seeing things the same way we and our ‘tribe' do! So, we refuse to open our ‘tribe’ to include anyone outside. You are welcome to be part of us – but, only on our terms!.

When God was setting up a people for Himself that would transmute to the universal community of God’s people, He began with the twelve tribes of Israel. This universal dimension was part of the promise made to Abraham: “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Genesis 12:3); “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves” (Genesis 22:18). Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations. However, history shows that they failed in this. Because of their special undeniable election as God’s chosen, Israel as a people had developed an aura of uniqueness and distinction. They began to think that they were the only favoured ones and that God does not care about other people.

Today, the readings serve as an important reminder that we should not confine and limit God to our myopic vision of things. He cannot be placed into a pigeonhole of our making. Though, man often draw boundaries, put up barriers, and group themselves into ‘tribes,’ God refuses to be limited in like manner. He crosses the line. In the First Reading, the prophet Isaiah attempted to explode and expand the insular and parochial mentality of the Israelites by reminding them that God extended salvation and deliverance to foreigners and indeed to all who would come to Him in worship on His holy mountain, in His house of prayer. In the Second Reading, St. Paul takes the discussion further by assuring the Gentiles of God’s mercy which is open to everyone. He does this by reminding both Jews and Gentiles that all have sinned, all have been guilty of turning against God, and therefore, all are in need of salvation. God’s divine activities, His justice and mercy, His gift of salvation are not exclusively reserved for a privileged few, but for everyone irrespective of race or religious background. You are part of His tribe as long as you acknowledge that you are a sinner in need of His saving.

In the gospel, we find our Lord Jesus Christ crossing such man-made boundaries and divides. He moved away from the Jewish region to the region of Tyre and Sidon; the ancient Phoenicia (present day Lebanon), an area outside Jewish boundaries. The questions asked could be, why and what did He go there to do? Well the answer can be found in the Gospel story. The story reinforces the point that though Our Lord’s mission had come first for the people of Israel, it was not confined to them. He came as a Saviour for the entire world. The Lord who is not limited by barriers and boundaries encounters another – a woman who also looked beyond the boundaries. She saw beyond the limits. There is crossing of a great divide taking place here: from the chosen people of Israel who have a sense of entitlement to God's favour, to this woman of no standing, now showing faith in the Lord by paying Him homage.

Altering St Mark’s story of the Syro-Phoenican woman, Matthew depicts the story of a Canaanite woman, Israel’s ancient archenemies. It is an understatement to say that Canaanites were despised by Jews.  The Canaanites actually returned the favour and despised them right back. What is it that would make a Canaanite woman reach out to a Jewish Messiah? In a word, desperation. In her torment and desperation, this woman no longer cares who helps her daughter as long as someone helps her! She is able to see beyond her tribal prejudices and hate. But she does more than that. She behaves as someone who has radical faith in the Lord. She called upon the Lord by His messianic title, “Son of David,” the very man and king who had fought with her ancestors, deprived them of their ancestral land and reduced them to landless refugees.

The gospel about the Canaanite woman sounds unusually harsh. At first, the Lord appears not to want to acknowledge that He hears her imploring request; then He says that His mission has to do only with Israel. His third statement underlies the second: the bread He offers belongs to the children, not to the dogs. Now comes the marvellous phrase from the woman: “Ah, yes” or to paraphrase it, “Yes, you are right.” She sees the point of the Lord’s argument and even concedes to it, but she adds, “but even the house dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” This, the Lord cannot resist, any more than He can resist the Gentile centurion of Capernaum: this humble, trusting faith in the Lord conquers His heart and her request is granted. In Capernaum, it was “Lord, don’t trouble yourself; I am not worthy”. Here, it is a willingness to occupy the lowest position, under the table. In each case there was faith, and so Jesus pronounces His judgment: “Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.”

In speaking about God’s universal plan of salvation, it is easy to overlook the fact that the earthly mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ really has to do with Israel: He is the Messiah of the chosen people, Israel, around which the Gentile nations are to flock, after it has been made whole and come to true faith. The first reading says this clearly. The Lord cannot make an end run around His messianic mission; He can act only by fulfilling it. This mission is accomplished on the Cross, where rejected by Israel, He suffers not only for Israel but for all sinners. Yes, the Lord came to save everybody. He is the Jewish Messiah as foretold, but He had come to offer salvation to everybody. The Messiah was to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6). He died on the cross as payment for all our sins, and He rose from death in resurrection, and He was the Good Shepherd and He predicted that His flock would be greatly expanded: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). He is the Messiah of the Jews, but He is our Saviour too.

We are living in times when there is an even greater fear of those who are different. There is a great impatience with those who do not speak our language; with those who have fled their country and sought refuge here without going through the proper channels. There is no denying that we live in a world marked by boundaries, and we cannot pretend that it is otherwise. And yet, we recognise that we worship a God who lives across boundaries, a God that does not belong to any tribe, and with no barrier, save except man’s wilful rejection of His offer of love that can keep Him from His goal of saving us.  The good news that Jesus brings to us again in this Eucharist, does not erase all of the distinctions that we find in our world. But it introduces a new principle—faith in the God who desires “to have mercy on all”, who desires to save us — that unites us across all our human divisions. It is now faith in God’s goodness and mercy, not any ethnic or national identity, that makes one an “insider” in His kingdom. It is our common faith in His abundant providence, that when we gather around the altar of the Lord, we can honestly look each other in the eye and say, “You are my brother. You are my sister. You are of my tribe.”

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