August 15, 2023 at 2:41 p.m.
What is our attitude toward foreigners? Pope Francis calls us to show compassion!
WORD OF FAITH: A breakdown of each week's upcoming Sunday readings to better understand the Word of God at Mass.
Immigrant, migrant, asylum seeker, refugee, alien, foreigner — all these words describe people who are moving from one country to another. All these names seize our imaginations in different ways. All these folks carry a burden of rejection or acceptance, understanding or reviling in our culture today. Things were not so different in ancient times or in Jesus’ time.
In the reading from the Prophet Isaiah, it is clear how God feels about these people, and that foreigners who “join themselves to the LORD” by becoming God’s servants and keeping the covenant shall be brought to God’s house, which is a “house of prayer for all peoples.” This is extraordinary given the historical period — a time when the Jews are returning from exile in Babylon and Jerusalem lies in ruins. The Jews have suffered greatly at the hands of foreigners! Yet into this situation, the prophet known as Third Isaiah, utters the prophetic oracle that begins — “Thus says the LORD” — which is to say that God is commanding that the foreigners, who are many, be accepted and made welcome!
The Gospel, however, seems to be a counterpoint to this command. Jesus is traveling in alien Gentile territory, Tyre and Sidon, when he is approached by a Canaanite woman. She respectfully calls Jesus, “Lord, Son of David.” The disciples want to dismiss her as a nuisance. Does Jesus rebuke them? No. Surprisingly he agrees and ignores her fervent pleas. Jesus says that he is sent only to “the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel.” No matter, she will not be deterred; she is a mother with a sick child! She does him homage and begs for his help. But he further rebuffs her – actually repeating the bias that Gentiles are little dogs (kunaria)! This seems harsh and out of character for Jesus. The woman persists and finally Jesus praises her faith and promises a cure for her daughter.
It is disturbing to see Jesus react severely at first. He is the compassionate one in all situations, even curing the servants of Roman officers! Some scholars see Jesus’ words and actions as eliciting a deeper faith from the woman. However, he really insulted her! Why is Jesus repeating his culture’s stereotype?
Other scholars reflect that the woman’s faith in Jesus really drew a new understanding from him. Perhaps the woman helped Jesus to see her, a pagan, in a new way. Perhaps it called him to discern his ministry to Gentiles in Gentile territory in a new way. Some people get nervous with the idea that Jesus “learned” things from others. But Jesus is human. Could Jesus be “unlearning” a traditional bias? This can be a valuable lesson for us. Jesus rethought a deep-seeded, cultural belief — can we?
Today it’s estimated by the U.N. that there are about over 100 million displaced people. This crisis is challenging governments and societies all over the world to consider what can be done to alleviate the suffering of refugees. But many citizens see “aliens” as overrunning their countries. What is the call of the Gospel in this pressing situation? What is our attitude toward foreigners? Pope Francis calls us to show compassion:
“The Church is Mother, and her motherly attention is expressed with special tenderness and closeness to those who are obliged to flee their own country and exist between rootlessness and integration. This tension destroys people. Christian compassion — this ‘suffering with’ compassion — is expressed first of all in the commitment to obtain knowledge of the events that force people to leave their homeland, and where necessary, to give voice to those who cannot manage to make their cry of distress and oppression heard. They are all elements that dehumanize and must push every Christian and the whole community to concrete attention.”
(Address to the Participants in the Plenary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, May 24, 2013.)
Today, we are challenged to extend the kindness that Jesus showed to the Canaanite woman to the strangers at our borders and in our country!