In the Gospel so far, Jesus has always been pushing boundaries. That applies firstly within Judaism. But it was inevitable that questions should also arise as to the boundaries between the Jewish people and their neighbors. This Canaanite woman does not belong to the Chosen People and we are asked to reflect on how Jesus deals with at that situation. We still struggle in church and in civil society as to who is on the inside and who is an outsider.
Firstly, there are various ways in which we could interpret Jesus’ words and actions towards this woman. You could see him as being harsh and cold. But another way is to see that he is simply trying to see whether she has any faith in who he is – or is just willing to give any wandering holy man a chance in order to help her daughter. Does she see him as the Messiah or just as a magician? At the end of this encounter, he commends her for her faith – and that is the reason why he can engage with her and cure her daughter. In the Temptations after his baptism, Jesus had refused to use miracles to show off or to get a large crowd of followers. He wanted people to believe in who he was. He was a preacher of God’s mercy, not a doctor. He wanted to heal the whole person, not just banish an illness. There is a temptation in church circles to trust in particular forms of piety on the basis that the saying of certain prayers is supposed to be more powerful than others and almost guarantee success in our eyes. This Gospel passage challenges all of us to ask whether we see Jesus merely as a useful character to be friendly with for special occasions – or one to whom we entrust our life, whatever the circumstances. We do not aspire to control God by our piety. Faith means handing control of our lives over to God.
Secondly, in this country, we have had a strong sense of community – with all the positive and negative elements associated with identity. Jesus knew what that meant for his day. Belonging to the Chosen people was associated with race rather than with religious conviction. Some people in Church today are upset when – especially for big ceremonies like confirmations, weddings, and funerals – they judge that some adults are approaching Holy Communion as if it were more a social ritual or a tribute to the deceased, the couple getting married or the child receiving the sacraments. In those circumstances, I am told that priests should refuse Holy Communion to some. And I understand where these concerns are coming from.
But Jesus was also very hard on those who condemned others or excluded people on the basis of neat divisions. The word Pharisee means one who is separated from the others. Jesus can see beyond the barricades that would help us to feel safe and comfortable. We can choose particular sins or beliefs as the more important measure of orthodoxy. But today’s Gospel passage is clear that Jesus calls us to faith in him and in God’s mercy and not just loyalty to a tribal identity. Reception of Holy Communion is a daring statement of loyalty to Jesus’ mission and not merely a cultural practice. This encounter between Jesus and Canaanite woman challenges both those who believe they are on the inside and those whom they see to be on the outside. We are all recipients of God’s mercy. None of us is a self-appointed guardian of God’s glory.
Thirdly, a mural is being unveiled this evening in Derry to a young woman, Sr Clare Crockett who died four years ago in an earthquake in Ecuador. It is perhaps symbolic that the large painting is on the gable wall of a bookie’s shop! She had a remarkable story of teenage dreams of fame and fun followed by a conversion to give all for Jesus – without ever losing her energy and sense of joy or love of people. Love of Jesus does not diminish who we are. It offers a new way of being more true to ourselves. This week we also celebrated Clare of Assisi and Maximilian Kolbe. From their lives, it is clear that Church is renewed in every generation not by condemning but mainly by modeling God’s crazy generosity. Sanctity lies in self-sacrifice as we reach out in humility, never in arrogance. Unless prayer and piety generate generous practical engagement with people where they are, it can be a faith that risks being smug. Today’s first reading as well as the Gospel is clear that the heart of Jesus reaches out. He does not shut out. St Thomas Aquinas was clear that ‘mercy is the greatest of the virtues since all others revolve around it.’ St Paul in our second reading is quite explicit that God’s mercy is what will touch the hearts of gentiles.
Today as in Jesus’ time, there are many in our community who feel far from God. Our parishes are burying far too many young people whose lives have been lived in chaotic circumstances – often more due to the bad decisions of others than merely to their own mistakes. Addiction and mental illness are cutting swathes through families. Funerals can be accompanied by a mixture of grief and hollow cheers in the face of apparently overwhelming odds. The holiness and effectiveness of the Church’s witness is measured not just in time spent in church but in how our that prayer life sends us out to venture into alien territory. Faith affects our heads, our hearts, and our hands. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. A faith that is overburdened with building walls to exclude others is less than authentic. Jesus calls me to examine my own conscience and not just to judge that of others. In fact, our secular world is very prone to precisely that Pharisaic desire to label people as believers or heretics when it comes to the new orthodoxies about sexuality, immigration or wealth. The last thing that Jesus’ followers should be doing is adding to the fragmentation and antagonism. In fact, both Jesus and St Paul were condemned for going not merely to the pure but to the pagans. The uncomfortable mercy of Jesus for the outsider is more important than the false security of human certainty.
All that Jesus does and says continues to challenge us. He gathers us each week so that we can hear his voice above the constant roar of other ideologies. His Word helps us to imagine a new way of being human. And our sharing in his Eucharistic body broken for us is his pledge of commitment to us – and our pledge of faithfulness to him. Jesus built bridges of divine mercy not walls of human anger. He asks us to continue that work today through the power of his faithfulness and mercy – whatever the cost.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of the Diocese of Derry. This homily was preached on 16 August 2020 at Mass for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Cathedral of Saint Eugene, Derry, Ireland.