Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Conflict is a total turn-off. I think it’s because I ‘m a middle child. I like that people live together in peace and get along smoothly and work together cordially in an atmosphere of mutual respect and genuine concern for each other’s welfare. But in the life of any organized group or society of diverse individuals, a lack of understanding of our fundamental need to belong may prove to be problematic. Every intentional group of individuals likes to define themselves by what they value in common as well by what differentiates them from all others. Each race, culture, language group, and nation will emphasize their prominent physical similarities, any history, values, customs, and traditions they share, music and art, literature and livelihoods, even religious expressions. And in that same process they naturally distinguish themselves from those with whom they differ. And yet at times the differences are so subtle, it takes a true expert to pick up on the cues.
Among these larger groups of people within the same race, culture, language, and nation are smaller groups—local communities, small neighborhoods, extended relations, immediate families—that love to celebrate their proud glorious heritage and squabble over their unsettled ancient disagreements. It is not unusual for nations that share a border or a disputed territory to escalate conflicts over issues that other nations would consider trivial or just find difficult to grasp. They make up particularly stinging insults and narratives intended to demean, mistreat, exclude, and inflict harm on their rivals. It becomes part of their identity and their proud glorious heritage. And whoever has been breathing and swimming in this pollution for generations will fail to notice how utterly demeaning and destructive their attitudes and speech and behaviors have become.
Jesus was likely as Jewish as any of his neighbors who lived in a specific period in human history immersed in the attitudes and behaviors that residents of that locality may have never stopped to question or evaluate. We may be vaguely familiar with all the suffering and humiliation inflicted upon the Jewish people by their neighbors for many generations. So it is not outside the realm of possibility that certain unresolved conflicts and unfair stereotypes may have found expression in their everyday attitudes and speech and behavior. But the gospel writer will sometimes depict Jesus arriving at a new insight or a deeper understanding of God’s plan and his own role to invite his intended audience to similarly grow in wisdom and love of God and their neighbor. The synoptic gospels especially wrestled with whether Jesus’ understanding of his mission gradually matured over time or that he always understood it in its fulness. The gospel of Matthew in particular was intended for a largely Jewish Christian community and depicted Jesus as one who came to fulfil the Law, who was sent primarily to seek out and bring home the lost sheep of the house of Israel. So when Jesus responded, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,” the Canaanite woman responded to his snarky comment and revealed a well-formed faith. And even Jesus was willing to extend God’s healing mercy beyond the scope of his assigned ministry.
But the prophet Isaiah clearly declares that God welcomes the righteous who may not historically be associated with Israel. If they join themselves to the Lord and minister to him; if they love his name and become his servants; if they keep the Sabbath holy and hold to the covenant, God will admit them into the assembly of his people to offer acceptable sacrifice and call on him in prayer. Although God chose Israel out of all the nations of the world to call his own, it was never his intent to turn his back on all others or offer the rest of them no means to receive his favor. Our God is Father of all the human family. In God’s heart there is adequate room for everyone.
St. Paul justifies his mission to the Gentiles by claiming it was part of God’s plan all along that they hear God’s Word and be reconciled, even as his own people, those God originally favored, would stop their ears and harden their hearts. But God does not take back his promises. His chosen ones remain dear to his heart because it is exactly those who are disobedient and who resist his invitation to repentance, first the very children of Abraham and then the rest of us who were never included in the original covenant, so eventually everyone, to whom God desires to extend his gracious mercy.
We may have noticed that in this summer of global pandemic and widespread social awakening, we can see how in every culture people tend naturally to define their uniqueness by focusing on the differences between them and others. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing until it is, until we use it as a weapon to demean, mistreat, exclude, and inflict harm on one another. Or just as bad, if we use it to deprive anyone of what is rightfully theirs or refuse them their share of what we say belongs equally to everyone.
As members of the same human family who call on the one God by different names, we need to acknowledge our debt of respect and charity toward one another because God’s plan makes room for us all. This unrelenting divisiveness and animosity, this constant suspicion and tearing down of our neighbor feeds a dark and destructive mistrust and resentment that is an obstacle to reconciliation and the healing of our damaged and exhausted spirits. Aren’t we all tired yet? Haven’t we witnessed enough poison and destruction inflicted upon what should be wholesome and refreshing? We can’t expect God to do all the work to transform this world and the human family that we have diminished and neglected with our pride and jealousy, our lust and gluttony, our resentment and laziness. What will it take for us to set about rebuilding a world we can proudly hand over to those who come after us? It is no wonder we long to turn off the news and disconnect from social media. The eroding stress of constant negativity is sapping our strength and extinguishing our light. We need to focus on solutions. We need to starve the demons that feed on the darkness within us. But first we might recognize how we tend toward divisiveness, how our attitudes, our speech, and our behaviors might demean, mistreat, exclude, and inflict harm on our neighbor. Then we must find opportunity and resources to bring God’s children together and nourish them.
Conflict is a total turn-off. And I think it’s because I‘m a middle child. I like that people live together in peace and get along smoothly and work together cordially in an atmosphere of mutual respect and genuine concern for each other’s welfare. We are all sort of middle children really, if not in our families of origin, perhaps in some broader human family definition, because as members of the wider human family, for as long as you are not the oldest or the youngest, you must be somewhere in the middle. We should be by now tired with being tired. We really need to refocus on building together the life we know God desires for us, the life we each owe to one another, the life that we owe to those who follow after us.
Rolo B Castillo © 2020