Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
August 16, 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 56:1;6-7 | Psalm 67:2-3;5-6;8
Romans 11:13-15;29-32 | Matthew 15:21-28
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
The past several election news cycles have focused on what’s called “identity politics.” What that means is that people of a particular gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, nationality, occupation, or social background, form exclusive political alliances. Politicians and political parties run election campaigns in a similar way that companies run marketing campaigns for products. They look for labels for their candidate that will align them to the majority of the voting public and use labels to cast unfavorable views on their opponents.
Identity politics relies on labels. Throughout our lives, people assign labels to us that reflect and affect both how others think about our identities and how we feel about ourselves. We regularly apply labels to people we barely know or have never even met, with others doing the same to us. However, the words that we use to label each other are often the result of unfounded stereotypes and assumptions.
That identity politics have become divisive and encouraged social conflict is beyond debate. Identity politics divides us into smaller and smaller groups, eventually ending with people feeling even more separated and alone, realizing that even those who share their identified label don’t always share all of their beliefs and values. By highlighting differences based on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, and then making claims based on those differences, proponents of identity politics sow division, rejecting the idea that God created us all in his images as the Book of Genesis tells us. It is also a far cry from what Saint Paul proclaimed in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Instead, everything is “We versus them.”
People labeling and stereotyping one another is nothing new. It was the norm, even in biblical times. In the days Jesus lived among humankind, Jews distinguished themselves from others, like Samaritans and Gentiles. In particular, they distinguished themselves from pagans like Canaanites. However, today’s Gospel shows how the respective identities of Jews and Canaanites do not matter in God’s final analysis.
Just who were the Canaanites? According to the Book of Genesis, Noah’s son, Ham, was the father of the Canaanites through his son named Canaan. They were a tribe which occupied large areas of what is modern Israel, land that God promised to Moses would be for the Israelites. In ensuing years, as described in the books of Joshua and Judges, Israelite armies drove out the Canaanites and took over much of their land. However, pockets of Canaanite civilizations remained, particularly in or near the Mediterranean coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon, near the locale where Jesus encountered the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel.
In the time of Jesus, religious animosity between Jews and Canaanites continued. While we and the Jews worship the same one, true and only God, the Canaanites were a bunch of polytheists who worshipped many so-called “gods.” These alleged “gods” were worshipped in a so-called temple, in trees, or even in fertility idols in Canaanite homes. So it’s not hard to see how there might be a conflict between the monotheistic Jews and the polytheistic Canaanites.
Jesus, being the product of his Jewish culture and just as human as we are, appears, and I emphasize, appears, at first, to adopt the prevailing local Jewish view of the Canaanites…that they were less than what the Jews were in God’s eyes. But unlike his fellow Jews, Jesus was open to the idea that a Canaanite could attain the same salvation as the Jews. Instead of accepting and following the prevailing stereotypes by which the Jews in the days of Jesus classified Canaanites, Jesus did not shun her. He resisted the entreaties of his disciples to send the woman away. Instead, Jesus engaged in challenging dialogue with this woman in which he proved wrong the prevailing ethnocentrism of his culture.
The Canaanite woman, who is not named, was a double outcast. Not only was she part of an ethnicity disfavored among the Jews, but she was also a woman in a very, very patriarchal society, where women were not much more than the mere property of fathers and husbands. The fact that Jesus was even speaking to her at all speaks volumes about his courage in ignoring and transgressing human-drawn social boundaries.
This profoundly courageous woman herself refused to accept what was “her place” in the prevailing social order. In pleading with him, “Have Pity on me, Lord, Son of David, she recognized him as the promised messiah. She called on him to fulfill the messianic responsibilities of the role by saving her daughter who was tormented by a demon. Although Jesus at first ignored her, he didn’t give her an outright “no.”
Instead, Jesus challenged her by responding, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman was persistent. She refused to take no for an answer. “Lord, help me,” she said. Once again, Jesus challenged her, saying, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Here, the Gospel writer was using allegories. “Food” meant the Word of God. “Children” meant the Jews. And “dogs” meant non-Jews, commonly called Gentiles.
In the Jewish society during the days of Jesus, dogs were not the warm, soft cuddly house pets like Felicity Bliss Moonlight, who models the unconditional love of God the dog-daughter in the family of Deacon Sharon and me. Rather, dogs were considered dirty and undesirable, on par with non-Jewish people. In the time of Jesus in the culture in which he lived, to compare a human to a dog was to imply that they were of very low status. So what Jesus said to this woman, comparing her to a dog, appears to be a disturbing ethnocentric insult.
But this woman was smart. Again, she persisted. She refused to stand down. She went right back at Jesus with, “Please Lord, for even the dogs, eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” What she was telling him is that the Gentiles receive the Word of God from the Jews. So Jesus, impressed with both her answer and her persistence, healed her daughter. In doing that, Jesus said, “You matter to me.” The clear message was that Jewish lives were not the only lives that matter. Canaanite lives matter!
Radical inclusion is a mission that must persist in both the church and the secular world. Here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Deacon Sharon and I work together as a ministry team to make “All Sacraments For Everyone” not just a slogan, but a reality. To paraphrase today’s first reading tells us, our mission is to build a joyful house of prayer for all who will walk through our doors when this pandemic is over. Of course, the resumption of our public worship will include burnt offerings of incense on every Sunday when we have enough acolytes.
But sometimes as a community, we fail in our mission of inclusion. Today’s Gospel has Jesus setting an example for clergy. He was a rabbi, yet he recognized the wisdom of a layperson. We clergy forget that sometimes lay people show more wisdom than bishops, priests, and deacons. We should listen to our laypeople. Even though they usually lack a theological education, they very often have the simple, but correct, answers to profound theological issues. On the issue of inclusion, the response of the Canaanite woman was spot-on. She let Jesus know that Canaanite lives matter.
Many would say perhaps Jesus recognized that he had misjudged the Canaanite women. His first two responses to her indicated that perhaps she just wanted him to do something for her without a return commitment. But in extending salvation through the Kingdom of Heaven to the Canaanite woman, Jesus disowned the identity politics of his day. He opted for inclusion rather than exclusion.
In so doing, Jesus set a wonderful example for the Church. Yet, from almost its beginning, Christians have been divided against each other. In the first chapter of First Corinthians, groups of Christians identified themselves according to who baptized them. Saint Paul, however, makes clear that all Christians must be united in the same mind and in the same purposes as Jesus.
But the Church did not heed Saint Paul. Christianity has now nearly thirty-thousand different denominations, many at odds with one another. Even within denominations, we find identity groups. Among Catholics, we have groups with various theological perspectives. Some people think it’s more important to identify as liberal or conservative than it is to identify as a Christian. The truth is, Jesus wants all of us onboard the ship called Mother Church, no matter what our perspectives and preferences. A house of prayer for all people is exactly that: all people.
Today’s identity politics in secular society in the United States is characterized by factions constantly at war with each other. Everything is one group competing with or fighting another. We have: Whites versus People of Color; Wealthy versus Poor; Native-Born versus Immigrants; Religious people versus secular people; Labor versus management; Sexists versus Equalitarians; Straight versus LGBTQ, Conservatives versus Liberals; and, the list goes on.
This state of affairs does not serve the United States well. Identity politics has birthed unrelenting competition, with politicians trying, and often succeeding, in winning elections by setting one group against another. To them, all that matters is getting power and using power once acquired to stay in power. Politicians are focused on winning elections, not by articulating a shared vision and building coalitions to accomplish commonly shared goals that benefit everyone.
Identity politics has people approaching elections and policies with their minds made up based on their identifying with a particular classification. People to whom identity politics appeals refuse to understand or consider any view but their own. Identity politics discourages people from making independent individual judgments about particular issues and taking policy positions that call for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Instead, policy positions and candidate choices are formulated on what’s best for the actual or perceived interests of the particular faction of people with which one identifies.
The result is the polarization we now see in our streets, on the Internet, on television, and even in families. We no longer see mutual respect between people who hold opposite views. The art of polite disagreement has vanished.
Identity politics builds neither an inclusive church nor an inclusive world. It leads to exactly the opposite result. People wall themselves off from one another by using litmus tests.
Identity politics raises both serious freedom-of-expression concerns and discourages independent thought when particular groups demand conformity for all who identify with one’s chosen political faction. For example, all Democrats are expected to accept the prevailing narrative on climate change that through stringent controls on carbon emissions, climate change can be reversed. Good Democrats are also expected to support the legality of assisted suicide. I am a Democrat as is my family back four generations. But based on my own independent investigation, I don’t buy into the standard “progressive” narrative on either climate change or assisted suicide. I see climate change as something too powerful to be reversed by any remedial human action. I think public policy should emphasize ameliorating its effects on the least among us. And I view assisted suicide as utter disrespect for the gift of life bestowed on all of us by a loving God.
Yet when I have argued those positions on Facebook which contradict progressive orthodoxy, my fellow Democrats heap profuse scorn on me. They see my positions as heresy and betrayal to their overall cause. I get the same reaction when I oppose rent control, and when I post on the coercive characteristics and ineffectiveness of labor unions.
And I have encountered identity politics in the Church as well. Christians who are progressive on social issues generally prefer low-church worship, but I am progressive on social issues and prefer a high-church worship style. Conservative Catholics usually prefer high-church worship but are very traditional on social issues. So I stand alone from both groups!
In so doing, I demonstrate that I want no part of ecclesiastical identity politics. I am doing what Jesus did in today’s Gospel. He ignored the pleas of his disciples to conform to prevailing Jewish thinking about Canaanites. Like Jesus, I ignore the pleas of others to shun particular persons and groups and instead follow my conscience.
The universality of salvation demonstrated in both today’s Gospel and first reading should be read as a big “no” to identity politics, both in the church and in the secular world. Today’s reading from Third Isaiah was in the context of God’s message to the Jews returning to the Holy Land from the Babylonian exile. Clearly, speaking through the author of Third Isaiah, God wanted the Jews to adopt a spirit of inclusion in the rebuilding of their society. Jesus took that prophecy to heart when he extended his healing ministry to the daughter of the Canaanite woman. And so did Saint Paul, who is usually identified as the Apostle to the Gentiles.
In today’s Second Reading, Paul addresses the Gentiles, expressing his frustration that his fellows Jews have not embraced the message and messiahship of Jesus. When you consider the overall message of Romans, clearly Paul wants both Gentiles and Jews to accept the messiahship of Jesus. What was important for Paul was not whether one was Gentile or Jew, but that the gifts and call of God are irrevocable and transcend our identity as part of any group.
All of us, no matter what our race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or any other identifying characteristic have an identity in Jesus himself which flows from the gifts and calling we receive from God. The salvation he offers is available to everyone and is based on God’s universal and unconditional love for humankind. Your salvation does not depend on who you are or how you live your life. It is there for the asking. All you must do is place your whole faith and trust in Jesus.
This theme of universal salvation repeatedly appears throughout the New Testament. In the words of the author of the Epistle to Titus, “The grace of God has appeared, giving salvation to all human beings.” And the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel has Jesus saying “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.”
That is what the end result was for Jesus, the Canaanite woman, and her daughter. My reading of the story is that all along, Jesus was going to do the right thing and heal the daughter, but wanted to see how seriously committed the woman was to him. Jesus wanted her to take him seriously, not just get what she wanted and go on her way. At the end of the day, Jesus saved rather than judged the woman and her daughter, reinforcing the notion that his mission as the messiah was to all of humankind, Jew and Gentile alike. What Jesus wanted was the woman’s faith, that is, her trust and loyalty. That is exactly what Jesus demands of us to be saved. Place your whole trust and loyalty in Jesus.
The world needs Catholics to be more Catholic, to be a truly universal church. Not Roman Catholic, Anglican Catholic, Old Catholic, or Orthodox Catholic. We are all just simply Catholic. All of us together are the Universal Church under our one Lord Jesus Christ. And the United States needs Catholics to be truly and universally Catholic by proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel not just among ourselves, but to everyone.
In a country torn by strife arising from injustice flowing from the arbitrary categorization of people based on their race, all Catholics of all the Catholic traditions, and indeed, all Christians, have a moral duty to shine forth as a prophetic sign of unity and love.
The world needs to recognize that the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Philando Castile, and others, are calling us now, more than ever, for Christians to be a prophetic sign of unity amid our diversity.
The world needs to see us as one body of people with diverse backgrounds all forming that tapestry, that mosaic, that is the People of God.
The world needs to experience the united voice of all Christians, of whatever jurisdiction and tradition, to demonstrate that diverse people can unite as one in the fight for God’s Justice.
The world needs all Christians to become a sign to the entire world to show that our strength comes from a bond of love that does not accept the exclusion of anyone. Whether we are smart or stupid, sick or well, sane or insane, rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful, sinners or saints, we are all part of the Body of Christ.
The world needs to witness our living out what we proclaim within the Apostles Creed: We are One, Holy Catholic, and Apostolic. Amen.