20th Sunday OTA

Is 56:1, 6-7; Rom 11:13-15, 29-32; Mt 15:21-28

Man is walking next to a cliff when suddenly the earth gives away he falls over the edge, yet manages to grab a hold of a plant growing out of the side of the cliff. Hanging hundreds of feet off the ground, he yells, “God, please help me” many times until there is a thunderous voice overhead that says, ” do you believe in me?”, “yes, yes”, the man replies. “do you trust me?”, the voice asks. “yes, yes, just please help, i cant hang here much longer”. “Then let go” the voice commands… The man looks up and says, “is there anyone else up there I can talk to?”

The readings today speak of the expansive and universal nature of the “Kingdom of God.” By declaring through the prophet Isaiah (the first reading), “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” God reveals the truth that in His eyes there is no distinction among human beings on the basis of race, caste or color.  The long-expected Messianic kingdom was intended not only for the Jews but for all nations as well. In the Gospel story, Jesus demonstrates that salvation was meant for the Gentiles as well as for the Jews by healing the daughter of a Gentile woman as a reward for her strong Faith. Thus, Jesus shows that God’s mercy and love are available to all who call out to Him in Faith.

A religion teacher brought a clear glass jar into her classroom that was filled with a yellow substance. She asked the class, “What’s in this jar?” At first the children were not sure, but after examining it and smelling it and even tasting it, they realized that it was honey. “It’s honey,” the children said. “Good,” said the teacher. Then she took a piece of white paper and wrapped it around the outside of the jar and fastened it with tape. She wrote on the paper: Vinegar. Holding up the jar again, she said, “Now what’s in this jar?”

“Honey,” all the children said. “But the label says its vinegar.” “It’s honey, just the same,” said the children. The teacher seemed satisfied and she put down the jar and looked directly at the class, “What you have learned about jars,” she said, “apply to people.”

In our world, people come to us with labels: labels of race, income, religion, and culture. But we would be amiss if we were to confuse the labels from the real people that we encounter. In fact, as followers of Christ, we are called to be very wary about what labels convey because they are often at odds with the real people we meet. Jesus deals with labels in today’s Gospel. He is in pagan territory and a Canaanite woman comes up to him. She is a Gentile, a non-Jew. In the culture of Jesus’ day, there was a prejudice against Gentiles, that they were unable to have a genuine relationship with God. For a while Jesus participates in this prejudice. He refuses to heal the woman’s child, saying that his ministry is only for the lost sheep of the House of Israel. But the woman persists, and in time Jesus recognizes her faith and heals her daughter.

As far as I can tell this is the only scene in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind. Instead of relating to the woman with the label “Gentile,” he perceives her as a genuine woman of faith. What Jesus does in the Gospel, we are called to do. As followers of Jesus, we are asked to deal with people, not through the labels they bear, but as the people that they are.

We who follow Christ are asked to deal with other people in truth, not according to the false and prejudicial labels, which are often found in our environment. If we claim to be believers, we must not say, “This is the way Jews are. This is the way Moslems are. This is the way alcoholics, or people of a different race are.” We must ask ourselves whether we are viewing others through our own real experience or through the prejudices that labels can convey. To allow our lives be directed by the half-truths of labels is a serious flaw. It places us in direct opposition to the design of God.

God makes people. We make labels. So instead of letting our lives be directed by the prejudices that a label can carry, we are obliged to discover and to respect the real people God has made.

We need to pull down our walls of separation and share in the universality of God’s love: Very often we set up walls which separate us from God and from one another. Today’s Gospel reminds us that God’s love and mercy are extended to all who call on Him in Faith and trust, no matter who they are. In other words, God’s care extends beyond the boundaries of race and nation to the hearts of all who live, and God’s House should become a House of Prayer for all peoples. It is therefore fitting that we should pray and work sincerely so that the walls which our pride, intolerance and prejudice have raised may crumble.