By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Monday, August 21, 2017

Reaching Across the Divide

We’ve witnessed some terrible things over the last few days: terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso, Spain and Finland; and the expression of white supremacist and neo-Nazi sentiment in Charlottesville. These are events and attitudes that must be denounced without ambiguity in the strongest possible terms. In the light of Sunday’s Gospel, I focus here upon a troubling reality that these occurrences place in high relief: division among peoples. Denunciation of hatred is necessary but insufficient. The events of these past days also summon us to work for reconciliation. The divides that separate us must be healed.
Separation of people from one another due to hatred, bitterness, misunderstanding, bigotry and the like is not new. Neither is it always as dramatic and visible as we’ve seen in last week’s events. Even in our homes family members can become separated from one another. Whatever the circumstance, the heart instinctively yearns for the divide to be healed. The Gospel passage for Sunday (Matthew 15:21-28) teaches us how to reach across the divide to find the reconciliation we earnestly seek.

Church in Canaan.
Everything in the Gospel story points to a situation of division. The narrative recounts the encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. Strikingly, this meeting takes place near a border, i.e., close to a point of separation. Yet this geographical barrier signals a far more serious racial and religious divide. As a Canaanite, the woman is a non-Jew, a member, in fact, of a people who had been pagan enemies of God’s people. In addition, women were often held by men to be inferior. Thus, for many reasons, the separation between her and the Jewish people of that day was vast, a yawning chasm.
This woman of old becomes our contemporary teacher by reaching across the divide. The complexity of the separation and the breadth of the division do not hinder her. Her reaching has a very specific goal: she reaches across the divide to Jesus. Her motivation is faith that Jesus can bring about the healing she seeks for her daughter. By her action, the woman invites us to share her conviction that the deepest and most long-standing divisions separating people need not stand. They can be overcome if we reach across the divide to the One who came to heal all division, who “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” by his death on the Cross (Ephesians. 2:14).
There is still more for us, in our current troubling circumstances, to learn from this encounter. At a time when we are hearing many people shout at one another with name-calling and expressions of hatred and racism, our attention is drawn to the use in the Gospel passage of a terrible slur. By grappling with this, an important lesson emerges.
Jesus speaks very perplexing words to the woman in response to her request; perplexing because they are harsh: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It was not unusual for Jews of that day to refer to non-Jews as “dogs.” But is Jesus actually calling her this??!!
Archbishop Smith in Canaan.
Crucial to bear in mind here is an important principle of biblical interpretation, namely, that any one particular passage of the Bible is only correctly interpreted when placed in the context of the whole biblical message and viewed in that light. The overall message of the Bible is clear: everyone, without exception, is made in the image and likeness of God; in Jesus Christ, God has come to save all people. The divine saving will is universal, affirmed by Jesus himself when, after his Resurrection, he commanded his disciples to go out to all nations with the saving grace of Baptism (cf. Matthew 28:16-20). From this perspective, the words of Jesus to the woman have the sense of “I know that people are saying this of you (i.e., calling you and your people “dogs”); do you nevertheless dare to believe that I have come for you, too?” In other words, Jesus is testing her faith. She remains steadfast in her plea and her conviction that Jesus can bring about the healing she seeks. Jesus is moved by her strong faith and heals her daughter. Far from adopting as his own the denigrating language, Jesus uses it in such a way as to distance himself from it and demonstrate that he has come for all people, to bring an end to all division.
Thus does the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman teach that we, too, must separate ourselves from all that separates - derogatory attitudes, hurtful language, presumed superiority and the like - and dare to reach across our divides by reaching first toward the One who can reconcile us to one another and enable us to live as the brothers and sisters God made us to be.

Top image: La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain