Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
Walls and Windows…and Faith
When I reflected on today's readings, I couldn't help wonder if Jesus was prejudiced, biased, closed-minded. We'll return to this question at the end of this homily which is about the theme Walls and Windows and Faith, or a subtheme of Insiders and Outsiders and Justice. In today's readings Isaiah speaks of "foreigners." Paul speaks of the Gentiles. And Matthew speaks of what seems to be the conversion of Jesus to hear the plea from an underclass woman. All three refer to "outsiders". So let's start with walls. Looking around this space we see four walls surrounding us, supporting the roof, and protecting us from all sorts of stuff. In his poem, Mending Wall, Robert Frost begins by saying, "There is something that does not like a wall," and he ends with the statement we have all heard: "good fences make good neighbors." But along the way he also cautions us to consider what we wall in and what we wall out. The text we just heard from Isaiah was written at a time when the Israelites were returning from their exile in Babylon. Ripped away from their homeland, they had to define themselves. While in exile they had taken great care to preserve the deposit of their faith, their history, liturgical rites, rituals, and the vast compendium of their prayers and hymns. It was then that the great bulk of Hebrew scriptures were committed to writing. Walls are how we define ourselves. In order to define itself, every religious, social, or political group must delineate clearly what it is and what it is not. Those who wish to be members of these groups must conform themselves to these cultural definitions, which determine who is inside the group and who is not. Yes, we need walls. There are physical walls, like the Berlin Wall, the Border Wall between Mexico and the United States, and the every growing Wall in Israel. But these material walls arise from social, cultural, political, and religious walls by which people define who they are. If we are the People of God, how do we define everybody else?
In 1958 Pius XII died after 19 years as Pope, and an interim Pope was elected, someone considered "harmless" for the establishment walls. He was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, a roly poly cleric from a tiny village in northern Italy, who as Pope John 23rd humbly stated, "It's stuffy in here. Let us open some windows." His faith led to the Encyclical Peace on Earth and the Second Vatican Council, the wisdom of which is at the heart and soul of our community.
So, what about windows? They bring the outside in and let the inside out. Fresh air indeed. They make all the difference between being close-minded or open-minded. The dictionary defines "closed-minded" as "being intolerant of the beliefs and opinions of others, stubbornly unreceptive to new ideas. We've heard that "minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open." (James Dewar) Yes, it's good to be open-minded but can we go too far? Maybe you've heard the admonition: "by all means lets be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out." (Richard Dawkins). We cannot be mindless and we must make up our minds, but are we open to change? George Bernard Shaw reminds us: "those who cannot change their minds, cannot change anything."
As we make up our minds, we make walls to define who we are and who we are not, but what we see depends on where we stand. Edward R. Murrow reminds us that "everyone is a prisoner of his/her own experience. No one can eliminate prejudices – just recognize them."
In today's Gospel we heard that even Jesus, being fully human, was not free from prejudice. We, like him, are captive by our culture.
Last week a social psychologist published some research demonstrating that rich people are less empathic, less altruistic, less charitable than lower class people. They are more likely to think about themselves and their successful work ethic, to gloss over the ways family connections, money, and education contributed to their success, and to denigrate the role of government and vigorously oppose taxes to fund government. Studies have found that as people rise in social class, they become less empathic, less compassionate. This is not the case for lower class people who are daily reminded of their interconnection and dependency on others. (Note: This does not mean wealth and compassion are incompatible. Many rich people foster compassion to see beyond their cultural walls by forming personal relationships with persons of need and by connecting with the poor in personal service.)
Last week I had the opportunity to enter the homes of two different people who impressed me as being rich, and I found myself startled at their abundance. I soon realized their political views were probably quite different than mine. Yet, as we talked, it became clear that they were not immune to suffering. One was still grieving the loss of two sons. The other was in conflict with a coworker. But I suspect their very abundance restricted their compassion for the poor around them. For all their talk of freedom, they seemed not to so free as to open some windows. In contrast to this, I remember Michael, a frequent visitor at Peace House, telling me he was richer than Bill Gates. Why? Because, he said, he could get up in the morning full of choices about how he was going to spend that day. He had plenty of time for people and delighted in witty comments and engaging conversations.
Our faith calls us not to wall ourselves in. We are called to love our God with our whole heart, mind, and soul…and to love our neighbor as ourselves. God's justice emerges with the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We are all so profoundly connected. A variation of this is "what goes around, comes around." In street language this means: "don't fart in your space suit." We are space suits unto each other. You laugh, but this week we heard news that nitrogen fertilizer from the fields of Minnesota and Wisconsin is contributing to the large "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.
So what did Jesus do? Was Jesus prejudiced? His cultural upbringing and social pressure from his disciples pulled him to shun the Canaanite woman. His mission was to serve the insiders, not the outsiders. But it was the faith of that woman to give voice to her desperate need that stopped him dead. Her faith seemed to pull Jesus out of his acculturated bias and by doing so let God's Justice roll like a river across the land, revealing the true splendor of the Creator's Loving Kindness.
So…was Jesus prejudiced. I think so. If we believe he was fully human, then I believe we must accept that he, even he, was walled in by his culture, social pressure, and social class.
So, let us close with this reflection:
When Jesus was face to face with that Canaanite woman, who was healed?
Was it the Canaanite woman (known as Justa in Catholic tradition)?
Was it Jesus?
Was it both?