Reflection for Sunday – August 20, 2023

Readings: Isaiah 56: 1, 6-7; Romans 11: 13-5, 29-32; Matthew 15: 21-28 
Preacher: Brigit Hurley

“Are you a believer?!”

I struggled to answer this question, posed to me by a work acquaintance I ran into at a concert featuring Christian artists many years ago.

Growing up Roman Catholic, I attended Mass and was active in youth group, but I never used that term to describe my faith. As an adult I had friends and family who were evangelical Christians—“believers”—who drew me into new experiences that I enjoyed. Still, I didn’t feel right answering “yes” to his question.

I hesitated because I knew he meant “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” “Do you have assurance that you will spend eternity in heaven after you die?” And most problematic for me, “Do you believe anyone who does not have a personal relationship with Jesus will not spend eternity in heaven?”

Those questions are divisive, just like the Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel story: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Wait, what happened to the gentle and loving Jesus I grew up with?

There are varying interpretations of Jesus’ harsh remarks—that Jesus was setting up a display of his ability to learn from women, or that he meant them but rewarded her persistence, or that he was just cranky and tired. I believe the message for us today is about Jesus’ radical, reckless acceptance. Her status as a woman and a Canaanite put her outside acceptable boundaries. He says aloud what people around him were thinking. And then Jesus not only heals the woman’s daughter of the demons plaguing her, he praises her—“O woman, great is your faith!”

“Dunbar’s number” is a longstanding psychological concept that asserts that humans can only manage about 150 relationships. This is the sweet spot in our personal networks and natural communities, where we feel connected but not overwhelmed. In a sense our brains need to “sort” people so we can quickly identify who is safe.  Throughout human history, the nature of our connections has evolved from family or clan to include social media “friends”, members of our church, people who share allegiance to everything from our nation to a favorite sports team, etc. We all need to belong.

Over and over again in his ministry, Jesus demonstrates that God’s Dunbar number is infinity. There is no “sorting” into gender, ability, nationality, religion, behavior, etc. when it comes to God’s mercy and healing power. All are worthy. To the extent that we rely on our biased judgments to draw a circle around our “people”, we trap ourselves in defiance of God’s inclusivity. We don’t have to look far for examples of traps. The Roman Catholic church “sorts” every Sunday when the sacred meal is shared with only some of the congregation, and only men consecrate the Eucharist.  Divisions in our country have deepened as we refuse to be in relationship with people who think or vote differently. We should be begging God for healing in our communities as persistently as the woman in the Gospel pleads for her daughter’s health.

Perhaps if we are believers in the dignity and worth of every human person, and in Jesus’ power to heal, our faith will drive out the demons that plague us.

Brigit Hurley
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