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6 Sep 2009

 9/6/09                                                                                             FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Fr. Randy Calvo   2009

“My brothers and sisters show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” (James 2:1)                                                            In the name …

I read this story in Readers’ Digest. It’s supposed to be true. Some guys went to France on vacation. One Sunday they decided to go to Mass at a church in a small village. They couldn’t understand the language, but being familiar with the basics of the Mass anyway, they simply sat, stood and knelt when everyone else around them did the same thing. All was going well for most of the Mass, but towards the end of the hour the whole group of guys stood up, following the example of this one guy in front of them. When they stood, the rest of the congregation laughed. After church as every-one was leaving, they had a chance to shake the priest’s hand. He spoke some English. They asked why everyone laughed when they stood up on that one last occasion. The priest explained to them that there had been a new birth in the parish and he had asked the baby’s father out in the congregation to stand-up. That’s when the father stood-up, but it’s also when all of these other guys did too. I really hope this is a true story because that makes it even more special, more heart-warming, more gratifying. 

The overlap of cultures in this way can bring a smile to our faces. There can be awkwardness and even a faux pas or two, but on the whole there’s a connection between people that is obvious even without sharing language and customs. This is that healthy kind of relationship that looks for the normal in others, that isn’t expecting insult or injury just because someone is different. Instead, the little mistakes that are bound to happen when cultures interact are accepted as just that, and people can laugh at them. They see people as more like themselves. They can easily imagine themselves having trouble with another language and all of the problems that may ensue.  

This sure beats the tar out of walking around all the time expecting the worst of other people, or putting up real or psychological barriers to stay away from people who are different. Can you imagine if this language barrier that led the guys to stand up with the father of the newborn baby was interpreted instead as an intentional insult to the mother’s virtue or something along those lines? Who knows what could have followed? This would be that kind of ridiculous tension and violence that has no real basis but can be destructive anyway. It’s all imagined, and yet the violence is real. It makes one group of people wary of another. It can isolate one from another. And this in turn only makes the matter worse because then the ones who are different are defined only by our worst imaginations about them and not by any real contact that can prove otherwise. 

This lesson is taught in the most personal way possible in today’s Gospel. It involves Jesus’ own example, and I know of no other Gospel account where the change in Jesus Himself is presented as the moral lesson. Jesus is usually present in the Gospels as the teacher of moral lessons not as the one learning a deeper moral truth Himself. Here Jesus is extremely human. Here we even see His limitations. Here in today’s Gospel we see Jesus actually growing in His own moral awareness. Jesus is changed by His encounter with this anonymous Syrophoenician woman. Here is our Saviour coming face to face with a new and unexpected reality, and the Gospels are honest enough to let us watch Him recognize His own bias and to be changed. 

Last weekend’s Gospel told us of Jesus’ rejection of all the old ritual laws of purification, that those things that affect the outside of a person are not as important as the actions that reveal the inner person. Mark then tells us that Jesus leaves for the foreign district of Tyre in Lebanon. We’re told he entered a house “and wanted no one to know about it.” (Mk 7:24) We get the sense that Jesus feels uncomfortable among these foreign people. Somehow this anonymous woman discovers that Jesus is there, and she pleads with Him to heal her daughter. Jesus’ response is uncharacteristically indifferent, and if it wasn’t Jesus, and if this wasn’t church, we could even say offensive: “It is not right to give the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” There’s just no way to make that polite. 

But the woman persists. She accepts the insult. She humbles herself because as a mother she will do whatever is needed for the good of her child. This response takes Jesus aback. He begins to see her not as a foreigner, not as one of the people He’s trying to hide away from. Instead, Jesus begins to see her as a mother worried about her daughter. He sees her as a person not as a foreigner. He begins to apply to Himself the lesson He had just taught to others about not judging by what’s on the outside, but by looking to the inner-person. I think Jesus was surprised by this revelation that He was not sent only for one group of people, but that He was meant to be the Saviour for all people -   because in the eyes of God we’re all His children. 

If Jesus Himself is susceptible to the temptation of building walls that can separate, then how much more so are we? But Jesus came to recognize the shared humanity of all people, and He changed. This to me is the perfect lesson of a human Saviour. Can we follow that example and learn as James tells us in today’s Lesson to “show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ”? Can we treat people decently and fairly no matter who they are, what they look like, how rich or poor they may be, where they come from? This Friday we observe the anniversary of September 11th. We remember the horrible consequences wrought by the blind hatred of all who are different. We see the ultimate consequences of those attitudes. So let us learn instead, as did Jesus, to see others as more like us than unlike us. Let us pray that our differences don’t separate us from each other. Let us pray the opposite prayer from those who invoked God as they murdered on September 11th, and let us invoke Jesus’ name instead so that we may learn to “show no partiality.” For this we pray in His name. Amen. (+)

Fr. Randolph Calvo


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