Fr. Anthony Moon
Sunday, August 16, 2020
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It sounds like we have two distinct and separate stories being told here in this morning’s Gospel reading. How they are linked is not immediately obvious, so if you’re unsure we will visit this aspect of the lessons soon and come to learn about this.
In the first story, we hear Jesus declaring that all foods are clean and edible. The Jewish people listening to Jesus that day were up against some very strict purity laws, laws that told them precisely what they could and could not eat. Jesus was moving away from that boundary, teaching that, on the contrary, all foods are edible. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,” Jesus says, “but it is what comes out to the mouth that defiles.” Jesus was less concerned about what people consumed—what they put into their mouths—and more concerned about what came out of their mouths. Jesus describes what comes from the mouth as coming from the heart, the deep intention of a person. Jesus names the result of evil intentions: murder, adultery, fornication, theft and so forth.
To apply this part of today’s reading to our 21st century American culture, it zeros in with distinct accuracy. As a culture, we are extremely concerned with what we eat, what goes into our bodies. Many, if not most of us adhere to or at least pay homage to, some form of diet or dietary lifestyle. And in some instances, we do so with a fervor that puts the observance Jewish purity laws to shame! As a culture, we are obsessed with reading packaging labels and with what we eat. As a culture, we are much less disciplined about what we express, however. We are much less disciplined with what “proceeds from the heart,” as Jesus says. A simple and convincing witness is to look at the comment section of most anything posted on-line. There we see murder in the form of character assassination; adultery or theft in the form of taking over and contorting others’ ideas; false witness and slander abounds. Perhaps these expressions of the heart are not so much linked to what we eat or refuse to eat, but the ideas and attitudes we consume; the ideas and attitudes we feast on every day. Wouldn’t it be a different world if we were as aware and discerning about our psychological and spiritual diet of ideas, attitudes, positions and entitlements, as we are about our food choices? Now that’s an idea worth chewing on!
But fear takes over, worry takes over, and we become victimized by this or that concern. Sooner or later we find ourselves fighting to get out of a corner that too often we place ourselves in. We see ourselves as victims wanting to fight our persecutors, whether that persecutor is a situation, a circumstance, another person—or, even ourselves. When we feel that sense of becoming a victim, that is a good time to take a step back, or as one author on leadership says, ‘step away from the action that confronts us on the dance floor, and go up into the balcony for a different perspective.’[i] In other words, get some distance from the situation to experience it more clearly, less threateningly. Go up into the balcony and look down on the crisis we find ourselves in—or maybe go up even higher, from the balcony to a heavenly perspective; try seeing the situation through God’s eyes.
Now, this situation may be very real—like the threat of the pandemic, racial strife, illness or financial strife—or it may actually be contrived by our own perceptions and beliefs. We can be guaranteed, however, that staying in a victim mindset will not allow us any room to resolve either the issue or our feelings about the issue. When we can take a step away from the real or imagined drama we find ourselves in—and take a deep breath—we are closer to being able to respond rather than only react. And, when we are in a position to respond, we are in a position to ask God for help. I think of the words of Albert Einstein, when he said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” And I think of the words of Jesus when he warned us several times, “Fear not!”
So, Jesus pushes the boundary of Jewish purity laws and tells his followers that all food is edible, thereby loosening the binding chains of those laws. Jesus also pushes his physical boundaries when he moves away from Galilee to the district of Tyre and Sidon. There Jesus encounters a woman from another race and religion. Now while the pagans had no issue with talking with a Jewish person, Jewish law forbade them from making contact with a person of another race or religion.[ii] Although Jesus was trying to operate in secret without recognition for his miracles, his reputation preceded him. The woman spots Jesus and begins to beg Jesus to heal her daughter. The woman begins to shout at Jesus, pleading for her daughter. While we commonly see Jesus responding with compassion to the oppressed or anyone in need, this time we see Jesus not responding at all—a strange response for Jesus, but given the customs of the day, understandable. The disciples become concerned about all the shouting and the scene the woman is creating and ask Jesus to send her away. Jesus explains his silence. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” So, his silence is connected to his awareness of his mission and is a result of his fidelity to the law. Jesus’ silence worries the woman who disregards the law that binds Jesus. She ramps up her demand of Jesus, throwing herself at his feet, begging, “Lord, help me!” This woman of another race and religion now claims Jesus as her “Lord.” And, Jesus only responds with a one-sentence parable: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Concretely stated, the children are the Jewish people and the dogs are the pagans.
The woman’s commitment to her daughter, and her unwavering faith that Jesus is the sure answer to this impending tragedy, causes her to reply, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She wasn’t even asking for a full portion. Similar to the woman who knew if she only touched the hem of Jesus garment she’d be healed, this woman knew that even a crumb from Jesus would be enough. It is at this point, I believe, Jesus is opened to a renewed mission, a clearer engagement of God’s direction to be of service and draw all people to God. Jesus shifts from disregarding the pagan woman, to remarking on her faith: “Woman great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed immediately.
These two stories are linked by intelligent and spiritual responses to boundaries. Jesus presses a boundary on what is consumed in favor of a more meaningful boundary of what is expressed. Even more to the point, the more specific boundary that Jesus is speaking of, is the boundary of the heart: What do we let in there, and what do we turn away? What do we allow our heart and soul to consume, and what do we reject? Just as a heart muddied with evil which is expressed through evil intentions, a pure heart will express our holy intentions.
The other boundary that Jesus was pressed up against was the boundary that rejects others based on who they are, where they’re from. In this story, race and religion were the bases for rejection.
Today, I invite you to become aware of the boundaries in our lives. Become aware of how they serve us—such as in discerning what we allow into our hearts and what we reject. Do the work to strengthen these boundaries. Also of consideration is exploring boundaries that serve neither God nor humankind—such as rejecting others for who they are. Have courage to reject these boundaries. Doing this kind of soul work of discovering, strengthening and correcting boundaries takes patience with ourselves; it takes awareness and it takes discipline. Doing the work of strengthening healthy boundaries brings us into unity with God. And discovering boundaries that need correction is critical, as these are the boundaries that separate us from God’s love. These are the boundaries that serve only as a wedge between us and God.
[i] Ronald Heifetz.
[ii] Helpful reflections were provided by Lectio Divina of the Carmelite brothers at https://ocarm.org/en/content/lectio/lectio-divina-20th-sunday-ordinary-time
Various Clergy and members of St. Augustine contribute to authoring the blog on a variety of topics.