The fact that we are distinct from the world does not mean that we are entirely separated from it. Nor does it mean that we are indifferent to it, afraid of it, or contemptuous of it. When the Church distinguishes itself from humanity, it does so not in order to oppose it, but to come closer to it... On the contrary, it finds in its own salvation an argument for showing more concern and more love for those who live close at hand, or to whom it can go in its endeavor to make all alike share the blessing of salvation. (Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam #63)Some years ago at the monastery––this was a public event so I am not breaking any secrets––one of our novices, who was quite well educated, was doing the readings at Vigils and came upon John Chrysostom’s commentary on this week’s Gospel. It's Mt 15:21-28, the story of the Canaanite woman asking for healing for her daughter, in which Jesus at first refuses her because it is not right for him to take "what is meant for children and throw it to the dogs." And this novice got to the line, right near the beginning of the reading, where John Chrysostom says, “She was a woman, a Canaanite, and a dog…” at which point he slammed the book shut and stormed out of the chapel, never to return. (And I mean never, he left the community shortly after that, for other extenuating circumstances.) When asked later why he had done that, he said, “Because that was a racist and sexist reading, and never should have been read in a public liturgy.” The whole thing was my fault; I was the one picking the readings at the time, and knowing what I know now I agree with him. We don’t think metaphorically anymore, and we also know enough about John Chrysostom and many of the writers of the patristic era, that they did in fact have a rather dubious unenlightened misogynistic anthropology when it came to women.
I have also learned along the way that, although we have the scholarly right to question the exact veracity of some of the Gospel accounts and words of Jesus, whenever Jesus appears in an unfavorable light in the Gospels, as in today’s reading, it’s probably true, for the simple fact that otherwise the compilers of the Gospels would never have left it in. I take some comfort in thinking that we are missing something here, a nod or a wink, a tone of voice. Everything I know about Jesus leads me to believe that, though he did deem his mission prior to his death to be mainly to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he was not a racist, and regularly did extend his healing mercy outside of the visible boundaries of Israel. Was Jesus having some kind of a dharma battle with her, simply re-iterating ironically a rather commonly held belief of the Jews at the time merely so he could show the wrong-headedness of it? This is something we will never know, but if we note the context in which the church puts this reading and the ultimate outcome of the exchange we have a very clear idea of what we are meant to learn from it, especially viewed in the light of the first reading, a Scripture that surely Jesus knew well coming as it does from the Book of the prophet Isaiah, which scholars think was the book that was most influential on Jesus’ own theology, quoted in the Gospel more often than any other book of the Hebrew Scriptures except for the psalms. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Is 56:7)
The other thing I note is this phrase, “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus had said this once before in the Gospel of Matthew, when he was sending the twelve out for the first time and he told them not to go into Gentile territory or enter any Samaritan town, but to go instead “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” I tend to think, rather optimistically perhaps, that the really important modifier in that phrase is not the prepositional phrase, “of the house of Israel,” but rather the adjective “lost.” In other words, don’t go to the fat cats in the temple––they already have their rewards, and Jesus saves for them the worst displays of the acerbic side of his personality. No, go instead to the lost sheep, an image that will figure so prominently in his parables as well.
With al that as a caveat, I must admit I got most of my thinking about these readings from two recent columns by John Allen, one on Pope Paul VI and the other on Pope Benedict. He reported about Pope Benedict holding what has become an annual event for him last week: he had a Q&A session with the priests of the Alto Adige region of Italy, in the Italian Alps where he vacations. Among other things, a propos today's Gospel, Pope Benedict said this: “In the course of time, I have come to realize that we have to follow the example of the Lord, who was very open with people who were at the margins of Israel… If we can see even a tiny flame of desire for communion in the church… it seems right to me to be rather generous” with them. So even the smallest stirrings of the faith should be encouraged rather than snuffed out, and so he said his instinct is to err on the side of mercy.
That all got me thinking about Pope Paul VI. Something he said has been rather foundational for me in my work: in his opening address to the second session of the Vatican Council, he called on the council fathers to adjust their relations with the world: “Not to conquer,” he said, “but to serve; not to despise but to appreciate; not to condemn but to comfort.” This was an ongoing theme of Pope Paul––dialogue, gentle, respectful conversation. One of the most neglected treasures among recent papal teachings is Pope Paul’s 1964 encyclical on the church Ecclesiam Suam, in which he laid out his vision of what the church’s engagement with humanity might look like. He said that the church could “reduce its relationships to a minimum,” it could “isolate itself from dealings with secular society”; it could set about point out “the evils that can be found in secular society, condemning them and declaring crusades against them;” or it could feasibly approach so close to secular society merely to try "to exercise a theocratic power over it.” “But it seems to Us,” he wrote, “that the relationship of the church to the world––without precluding other legitimate forms of expression––can be represented better in a dialogue.” (As a matter of fact he uses the word “dialogue” over 70 times in that encyclical. Computers are wonderful for that kind of thing.)
And then he goes on to describe that dialogue in terms of four qualities: clarity, meekness, trust and prudence. Clarity, meaning not just that our position is articulated clearly but that language should be “understandable, acceptable, and well-chosen”; meek, meaning that dialogue is “not proud, not bitter, not offensive.” Trust, meaning not just confidence in the power of one’s own words, but also in welcoming the trust of the interlocutor, a trust that promotes confidence and friendship. And prudence, meaning not just that we don’t take risks but trying to learn the sensitivities of the hearer, and adapting ourselves and our manner of presentation in a reasonable way, so that “we not be displeasing and incomprehensible.” (Why we might not want to refer to a Canaanite woman as a “dog”!) There’s a French phrase that his attitude reminds me of: noblesse oblige––the noblest among us are the one who have the responsibility to act with generosity and graciousness. The authority of our part in the dialogue, he said, is intrinsic to the truth it explains; our authority comes from the charity it communicates and the example it proposes. Our authority is not a command, nor is it an imposition. It is peaceful; it avoids violent methods; it is patient; it is generous. Before speaking, we have to listen to the other person’s heart as well as their voice. The other must first be understood; and, wherever possible, agreed with. “In the very act of trying to make ourselves pastors, fathers and teachers… we must make ourselves their brothers” and sisters.
John Allen wrote that in an era of what he calls "ideological tribalism," theologically and politically, it seems good for us to remember this largeness of spirit, and I am finding that Pope Benedict is carrying much of this same spirit in his modus operandi, to many peoples’ surprise. At this same Q&A session, he was asked some questions about evangelization and, instead of talking about specific aggressive strategies, he spoke about the cultivation of simple human virtues, very much in the spirit of Paul VI: “Honesty, joy, openness to listening to one’s neighbor, the capacity to forgive, generosity, goodness, [and] cordiality.” Very much in the spirit of what Paul VI wrote, he said these are the things that are “indicative of the fact that faith is truly present,” (are they not what St Paul calls “the fruits of the Spirit”?) And these are the things that give the best form of witness. It reminded me of the often quoted saying of St Francis, which has undoubtedly been reduced to a sound byte: “Spread the Gospel; use words if necessary.” Or, as a craggy old missionary living in Hell’s Kitchen in the Bronx said once, “The Gospel spreads itself. All we have to do is show up.”
Let’s hope that the Lord’s house, our house, the house of the Church, the house of our communities, would truly be a house of prayer for all people and that we can learn this spirit of civility in dialogue, and through the example of Jesus, seek for the lost ones, and bring them home with honesty, joy, openness, forgiveness, generosity, goodness, cordiality, patience. And these words could describe all of our relationships:
Not to conquer but to serve,
not to despise but to appreciate,
not to condemn but to comfort.