Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tuesday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Distinction Without Exclusion

Readings: Exodus 14:21—15:1; Exodus 15:8-9, 10 and 12, 17; Matthew 12:46-50

It is possible to listen to the gospel reading for today as a message of exclusion. After all, a clear distinction seems to be made between those on the inside – the people to whom Jesus is speaking – and those on the outside – Jesus’ mother and brothers, who were anxious to have a word with him. This distinction even calls to mind the violent demarcation that is drawn in the first reading between the Egyptians and the people of Israel. The returning waters overwhelmed… Pharaoh’s whole army… But the sons of Israel… marched through the sea on dry ground. Listening to the readings in this way, we may then be tempted to make it our business to go about trying to distinguish and to judge between those who make it across the sea and those who are engulfed by it.

And isn’t it true that such a reading can occasion much needless anxiety and unhappiness, even within families and among friends? Consider what sometimes happens when, for example, a child of Buddhist parents converts to Christianity. Don’t the Buddhist parents sometimes worry that they might be separated from their child in the next world? And worse, doesn’t the young, freshly minted Christian sometimes feel obliged to pass negative judgments on the idolatry and paganism of the parents?

And yet, although we cannot deny the distinction that is being made, aren’t the readings today more about inclusion than about exclusion? Isn’t Jesus trying to help his listeners to extend the too-narrow horizons of their sense of community? In the realm of the Spirit, in the kingdom of God, people are brought together by something far more intimate and far-reaching than commonalities in language, or race, or genetic code. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven… is my brother and sister and mother…

And, as we are reminded in another passage of scripture, the Father’s will is that everyone… be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). God wants to bring everyone safely across the often tumultuous and treacherous waters of daily living to the opposite shore of life in its fullness. For us who are Christian, this crossing recalls our own baptism into Christ. And we are right to wish that others might join us in crossing the waters of baptism. We do have a responsibility to share our faith with others.

Even so, isn’t it also true that among those who might not have crossed the baptismal waters, and who for various reasons might not even wish to, we can still see and recognize the face and hands of Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6)? Could it be that, in some mysterious way, these people are also being brought safely across the waters, without our being aware of it? Can we discount this possibility and still claim to be doing the will of my Father in heaven? And if we were indeed to entertain this possibility, if we were to adopt an inclusive rather than an exclusive reading of today’s scripture, what difference would it make to how we view and relate to others?

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