Tuesday, August 22, 2017

homily notes 20th Sunday of the Year, "A", 2017

When our current lectionary was assembled, the Sunday Gospel reading was the first component to be selected. During the liturgical year that began the First Sunday of Advent 2016, we are hearing primarily from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, and so it is that we come to the story of the Canaanite woman – a foreigner – seeking help from Jesus. When the editors of the lectionary looked for an Old Testament reading to go with the Gospel, we can easily understand why they selected the prophecy of Isaiah about God accepting the sacrifices offered by foreigners.
If we simply left the matter there, it would be interesting, but irrelevant. In fact the story of the Canaanite woman asking Jesus to help her possessed daughter, and then being rebuffed by both Jesus and his disciples, has something to say about a big problem our own country faces right now: the problem of race. It’s a dilemma that has always plagued our country, and recent events show that it has not yet been solved.
It is appalling and beyond belief, but it is true, that in our own country, which promises liberty and justice for all, there are people who call themselves the alt-right, white supremacists, white separatists, or even neo-Nazis. Some of these same people would call themselves Christian. They are sadly misled.
How are we to respond to this reality?
Political solutions alone, as we have seen, are insufficient. Politics is about power and influence and getting people to vote for you, not about healing and changing minds. Others say that the solution depends on more talk about diversity and inclusion. But what is our response as Christians, as Catholics? I believe that our Catholic Christian tradition has a lot to offer and a lot to teach us. In twenty centuries we have accumulated much wisdom that could be very helpful to our country today.
In 1937, Pope Pius XI wrote a letter to the Catholics of Germany, in which he said the following: “Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State,...above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.”
Perhaps many people don’t know that the Nazi ideology was both non-Christian and anti-Christian. The Nazis attacked the Old Testament as Jewish literature. Hitler said that Christianity was a “Jewish superstition.” Pope Benedict XVI correctly described Nazism as “an insane racist ideology, born of neo-paganism.”
The number of people who remember the fight against the Nazis is getting smaller; the number of those who actually fought in that conflict is smaller yet. Maybe that’s one reason for the resurgence of Nazi ideas. But it’s no excuse. If you know what Christianity really is, then you already know why it is wrong to say that one race is superior to another: it is a blasphemy against God the Creator of the human race, and an insult to God the Son, the redeemer of the human race. As the Roman Missal says, “For just as through your beloved Son you created the human race, so also through him with great goodness you formed it anew.” (Common Preface III)
Recently I was reading about Lewis Cooperberg. He was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who served in the US Military as a medic in World War II, treating wounded soldiers. By 1944, he was treating more and more wounded German soldiers. He wrote home to his family about it: “I speak German pretty well, I speak to them. ...They have robbed and murdered and raped, and they lie on my slab, innocent-like and in pain, and I give them the same care, the same treatment I give our own boys. Yet all the while, I know these same men have killed my cousins and aunts and uncles in Poland, have tortured and killed without compunction, and despise me because I am a Jew. But I treat them...An SS trooper arrogantly refused a blood transfusion because it was American blood, we forced it into him, we should have let him die.”
That Jewish kid just told us what Christianity is. Jesus Christ gave the same treatment those who killed Him as He did to those who abandoned Him: Father, forgive them; they know not what they do. God sent us His son – a Jew – to heal us, and we despised Him. He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. Like the SS trooper who refused a blood transfusion, we would sometimes rather die than let the precious blood of Jesus wash us clean of our sins. God should have let us die. But He did not.
Christians have always known this. Long before it became fashionable to talk about diversity and inclusion, Christians knew that one man died for all. They knew from the beginning that Christ was the new Adam, the new head of the whole human race. They knew that there is only one race: the human race.
St. Paul understood this. He was a Jew, outstanding in both instruction and observance, whose life completely changed when he met the risen Jesus. From that point on, he became the Apostle to the Gentiles but, as we heard in the second reading, his heart burned with the desire to save both Gentile and Jew. He understood that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither black nor white, neither Asian nor Hispanic. The only distinction that worried him was the difference between those who had faith and those who did not.
In this he showed that he had absorbed the mind of the Lord Jesus, who said to the Canaanite woman, “Oh woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” What an interesting phrase. Jesus praised the Canaanite woman in words nearly identical to the words spoken by his own mother to the angel: Let it be done to me according to your word.” When Mary spoke those words, she showed that she was the first disciple. When Jesus praised the Canaanite woman in those words, he showed that she was a true disciple, just as much a disciple as Peter, James, and John.
In the wake of Charlottesville, we need to be even more attentive to God’s word and what it is saying to us right now. In particular, the words of the first reading:
Observe what is right, do what is just...
my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

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