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With Jesus on the Periphery

August 14, 2017
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A - August 20th, 2017
In the pre-conclave meetings of the College of Cardinals prior to the election of the new pope in March 2013, one very memorable and decisive intervention was made by the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires on the morning of March 7, 2013. In his brief, four-minute address, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio spoke about the work of Evangelization in four concise points. He suggested, if the Church has a self-referential spirit, it interferes with its ability to carry out its mission. Two of the points he mentioned were:
1) Evangelizing pre-supposes a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also to the existential peripheries: the mysteries of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all forms of misery.
2) Thinking of the next pope: He must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, who helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”
Cardinal Bergoglio basically asked his brother Cardinals, gathered in the upper room, “Are we willing to break out of the strangleholds and unhealthy molds that have prevented us from announcing the Gospel and inviting others into the Church?” “Are we interested in transmitting the faith and bringing non-Christians to belief in Jesus?” “Are we truly missionary at heart?”
That four-minute intervention in the Synod Hall provides the key to understanding the man who would become Pope Francis, a pastor who “helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, who helps her to be the fruitful mother” by “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”
Sunday’s Gospel is precisely about Jesus’ going out to the periphery. In order to better understand the powerful significance of Matthew’s Gospel text for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year A, it is essential to look at the wider context of Matthew’s Gospel. The evangelist wrote his story of Jesus for a Jewish Christian community caught in a tumultuous moment of history. The community was struggling to preserve its connection to its historical roots in Judaism and hesitant before a future that promised substantial, even earth-shattering change.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by insisting that his mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:6; 15:24). Matthew’s Jesus anticipates this turning point from an exclusive focus on Israel to an inclusive mission to Jews and Gentiles as he encounters Gentiles who seem to push their way onto the Gospel stage. First, there were the three astrologers who read the stars and came seeking the Messiah (2:1-12). Then there was a Roman centurion of Capernaum who begged Jesus to heal his sick servant (8:5-13), and in doing so evoked in Jesus a vision of a future mission far beyond the boundaries of Israel. Who can forget the striking Gadarene demoniac whose tortured existence reaches Jesus as he comes ashore in the alien territory of the ten cities – on the other side of the lake (8:28-34)?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ provocative meeting with the Syro-Phoenician woman (15:21-28) is set outside the land of Israel in the territory of Tyre and Sidon in southern Lebanon. A foreign woman draws near to a Jewish man, pays him homage, and makes of him a daring and bold request: “Lord, son of David, have pity on me! My daughter is terribly troubled by a demon” (15:22). She demands that Jesus come to help her young daughter in distress. Jesus dismisses his disciples’ wishes that he distance himself from this foreign woman.
Yet Jesus responds quite forcefully to the woman: “I am a stranger here; I should not interfere.” It seems so out of character for him to say this.
“Lord, help me!” the woman pleads (15:25). Jesus’ next words are somewhat scandalous: “It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs!” (15:26) What an insult, that sees others not as human beings, but as animals eating leftovers! Are we not disturbed by Jesus’ rudeness, coldness, and indifference to this woman in need?
The Syro-Phoenician woman is desperate, along with her daughter who suffers from a demon: some kind of ailment that ostracizes and alienates both mother and daughter from the community. This troubled woman and her sick daughter simply desire to live normal lives again without grief, anxiety, and suffering. Jesus understands his mission – but not in relation to this woman. After all, he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but he too experienced deep rejection from his own people to whom he was sent.
In this incredible Gospel encounter, the world of the troubled woman whose daughter is dying and the world of Jesus, the Jewish prophet who is being rejected, collide. And in that collision, something new was born, not only for the two of them but for the whole of Matthew’s Gospel community.
The Syro-Phoenician calls Jesus “Lord,” refers to him as “master,” and humbly says that she, like a dog at the table of his household, will gladly take the leftovers of his mission and power. She receives from him what his own people will not accept. Jesus is astounded at her faith. Through her insistence, perseverance, boldness, and courage, this stranger on the periphery forced Jesus to rethink his entire mission. The unnamed woman is allowed to participate in the Messianic salvation that is offered to all who believe in the Lord and keep his commandments, regardless of their origin, or social status, or condition. The woman proclaims that the love of God cannot be bound. Because of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s persistence, Jesus learned a powerful lesson of universalism, love, and service and thus extended his mission far beyond his own people, his own religion, and his own nation.
We must be honest, however, that despite the inclusive mission of Jesus beyond the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and despite the commission of the Risen Christ that his disciples go to all nations, the Early Church experienced much perplexity, strife, and poor pastoral planning as the Gospel moved beyond the boundaries of Israel and their Jewish Christian experience – almost in spite of the early community’s efforts. The contemporary Church continues to experience those same labour pains as we strive to bring the Gospel message to the ends of the earth, to the peripheries of our times.
In the first months of his Petrine ministry, the Pope who came from the ends of the earth wrote a magnificent blueprint for the mission of the Church called Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). In paragraph #20, we read:
The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him “to go forth.” Abraham received the call to set out for a new land (cf. Gen 12:1-3). Moses heard God’s call: “Go, I send you” (Ex 3:10) and led the people towards the promised land (cf. Ex 3:17). To Jeremiah, God says: “To all whom I send you, you shall go” (Jer 1:7). In our day Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples” echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth.” Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.
Who knows what will happen to us when we open ourselves up to God and allow his Word to work within us? Who can imagine what will happen when we break out of the strangleholds and chains that have prevented us from going to the geographical and existential peripheries of our times and places? We might meet strangers and outsiders who interrupt our lives, stop us in our tracks, and force us to ask deeper questions. We may end up, like Jesus, praising the still greater faith in those strangers and outsiders who end up evangelizing us!
Paul glories in his ministry
In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (11:13-15, 29-32) the unbelief of the Jews has paved the way for the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles and for their easier acceptance of it outside the context of Jewish culture. Through his mission to the Gentiles Paul also hopes to fill his fellow Jews with jealousy. Therefore he hastens to fill the entire Mediterranean world with the Gospel. In God’s design, Israel’s unbelief is being used to grant the light of faith to the Gentiles. Meanwhile, Israel remains dear to God, always the object of special providence, the mystery of which will one day be revealed. Israel, together with the Gentiles who have been handed over to all manner of vices (Romans 1), has been delivered – to disobedience. The conclusion of Romans 11:32 repeats the thought of Romans 5:20, “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more.”
[The readings for this Sunday are: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; and Matthew 15:21-28.]
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