Sunday, August 14, 2011

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lay Apostolate Sunday
Location and Action

Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 66:2-3, 5-6, 8; Romans 11:13-15,29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Picture: cc whatjeanlikes

Sisters and brothers, have you ever noticed how so much of what we do depends on where we are? For example, I recently returned from a place where, even in the middle of summer, there were still some mornings and evenings when I needed to put on a sweater before leaving the house. But now that I’m back in tropical Singapore, I find myself trying to wear as little clothing as possible. Without being arrested for indecent exposure, of course. Anything to help me cope with the heat. When in a cooler place, you wear more. When in a hotter location less. Our surroundings have a big impact on the things we do. Very often, location determines action.

It is useful to keep this in mind as we begin our meditation on our Mass readings today. For the action in all three readings takes place in more or less the same kind of location. The nature of this space is brought to our attention at the beginning of the gospel, when we are told that Jesus left Gennesaret and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus changed his location. He moved into the borderlands between Jewish and Gentile territories. And having arrived at this in-between locality, Jesus can no longer mix only with his own people. Now he also has to deal with foreigners.

Similarly, each of the other two readings situates us in a location between the native and the alien. Although the first reading is addressed to the people of Israel, it speaks to them about foreigners. And although the second reading is addressed to Gentile Christians, it speaks to them about the Jews. All our three readings today locate us squarely in the borderlands, in an in-between place–between us and them, between ours and theirs.

But, if it is true that location determines action, then what does one do in such a place? What is the appropriate action to perform when you find yourself surrounded by people with customs and beliefs, perspectives and preferences that are very different from yours? People who may eat different foods, wear different clothes, worship different gods. People who may look and even smell different. What do you do?

The first line of our first reading provides an answer by telling us to act with integrity. When we find ourselves among foreigners, we should take care to remember who we are, and to whom we belong. We are to maintain our integrity as the chosen people of God, and not allow this sacred identity to be dis-integrated through bad influence. So, in the verses that have been left out of our first reading from Isaiah 56–our reading jumps from verse 1 to verse 6–the prophet tells the people to keep observing the sabbath, and to stay away from every evil deed. What do you do when you find yourself among foreigners? You remain constant in your faith.

Good advice. But that’s only half the story. There’s something more. Something very important. For our integrity as the people of God is not really our own. Our integrity is modelled upon the integrity of the God to whom we belong. And, as our readings remind us, the integrity of God is expressed in the mercy that God constantly shows to all people–Jews and Gentiles alike. In the first reading, we’re told that God wishes to bring even foreigners to God’s holy mountain. So that God’s house will be called a house of prayer (not just for Jews but) for all the peoples. And in the second reading, St. Paul expresses the firm belief that even though his fellow Jews have rejected Christ, they still enjoy God’s mercy, because God never takes back his gifts or revokes his choice.

The surprising and even shocking extent of God’s mercy is brought out most clearly in the gospel. Here Jesus presents us with an example of what a Christian is called to do when travelling in the borderlands. We can’t say for sure what his exact intentions were. Did Jesus actually mean to ignore the Canaanite woman? Or was he just testing her? This is unclear. But two other things are clear enough. First, Jesus’ apparent indifference to the woman had the effect of drawing out her faith, of making it more explicit. Notice how, at first, the woman calls out to Jesus while keeping her distance. She addresses him by the accurate but impersonal title Son of David. Then, having been ignored by the Lord, she comes right up to him, kneels at his feet, and acknowledges him as her Lord. And that’s not all. When Jesus rebuffs her, the woman responds by humiliating herself. She accepts the rude name that Jesus gives to her. Yes, she is a house-dog. But she also reminds Jesus that even house-dogs remain members of God’s household. And membership has its privileges. Jesus grants her request. He heals her daughter.

And this is the second important point. By changing his mind in this way, Jesus breaks the stereotype that some Jews had of foreigners. Jesus shows that even among those thought to be unclean, great faith can be found. For God’s mercy is broad and deep enough to accept all peoples–natives and foreigners alike. Through his willingness to change his mind, Jesus shows us the constancy of God. As followers of Christ we too are called to do the same. When we find ourselves in the borderlands between the native and the foreign, we are called not just to remain constant in our faith by keeping to ourselves and coming to church every Sunday. We need also to be channels of God’s mercy to others. We  need also to reach out to foreigners, and even to be willing to change our minds–to break our stereotypes–about them.

This is an important reminder for us especially today, as we celebrate Lay Apostolate Sunday. For, as you know, the word apostle, means one who is sent. And a lay apostle is one who is sent into the world. And what is the world, if not one big borderland–a place in between the brilliant brightness of Heaven and the deep darkness of Hell? In the world, we Christians are surrounded by many different kinds of people. And although it is true that we need to guard ourselves against bad influences, it also remains no less true that we cannot simply separate ourselves from others. What is more, foreigners can appear in many different disguises. We find them in many different places. In our offices and in our schools, even in our own homes and in our church. In all these places and more, there are foreigners waiting for the lay apostles of Christ to bear witness to them, to show them the constancy of God’s mercy, to draw them into God’s household, and to break the stereotypes that keep us apart.

Sisters and brothers, as lay apostles sent out into the world, how can you let your location determine your action today?

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