We need Jesus' human spirit to learn to welcome others into our midst

by Thomas Gumbleton

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As we listened to the Scriptures last Sunday, you may remember we reflected on one of the greatest mysteries of our faith: the incarnation of God in Jesus, son of God and son of Mary. And we reflected on Jesus as one like us, because if you recall, he had just been told about the execution of John the Baptist, one whom Jesus loved. Jesus had been a disciple. John was even a mentor to Jesus, and now he was murdered, killed, because he had prophesied against the king, and Jesus had to go apart and grieve because he was human.

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Psalms 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28
Full text of the readings

But then, remember in the Gospel, Jesus and the disciples had gone across the lake and were caught in that storm. Jesus comes walking to them, so he's son of God and they recognize it. And today, our Gospel and our other lessons help us to continue to reflect on Jesus as fully human, but also fully divine. I think most of us, as we grew in our awareness of the spirit life and learned to pray and pray to Jesus, we would most of all think of Jesus as God -- turn to Jesus because we needed help in one way or another, and we needed consolation. We needed support, and we knew Jesus as God.

But we -- I think not often enough -- would really search into the mystery that Jesus is also fully human, and in today's Gospel, this comes across very clearly because we see Jesus in a way that doesn't seem quite like Jesus. This woman comes to him with a plea: Her daughter is in great stress and she needs to be healed, and Jesus doesn't even answer. He ignores her, and then the disciples come and say, "Send her away!" So Jesus then tells the woman, "Look, I was sent only to the chosen people, the house of Israel."

See, she's from outside the Promised Land. She's a Gentile, pagan, Canaanite, and so Jesus is saying, "I don't minister to people like you." Well again, that doesn't seem like Jesus, but again we have to remember he's fully human, so he's part of the Jewish people. He grew up in that culture where they were exclusive. Gentiles could not come into the temple, and so Jesus was part of all that. He had to learn; he had to grow, as Luke says in the Gospel at one point: "He had to grow in age, wisdom and grace" because he was truly human.

And then in this incident today, the woman begins to discuss with Jesus, and he breaks down a little bit the barrier that he had set up. And she pleads with him, kneeling at his feet. When he said, "Well, it's not right to give the bread of the children to dogs," that's like an insult, but the woman is not deterred. She says, "But yet even the dogs receive the scraps from the table," and so this, then, opens Jesus' eyes.

See, in his humanness, he had not really understood that he was to reach out to all people. God had sent Jesus into the world to be the savior of all people, to reach out with healing and love to everyone, no barriers, and Jesus had to learn that. And when he did, of course, then he opened up with the love that he experienced even as a human, and then also brought into play divine power to heal the woman's daughter.

As we reflect on Jesus as being one like us, I think it helps us to grow in our spiritual life. You know, we really can't be God; Jesus was God. We can't be God, but we are called to be like Jesus, and as we become more and more like him, we become the full human persons that God calls us to be. We become people who learn to love and be loved, who learn to share and to be gracious to all. We learn how to follow Jesus in his humanness, and that makes us ever more close to God.

And isn't it true that in our world now, we need this human spirit of Jesus to learn how to be open, to welcome others into our midst? There are so many barriers we have set up in our human family: barriers of race, barriers of religion, barriers of ethnic background. We set ourselves apart as a certain religious group, exclusive of others, or one race exclusive of another, one ethic group against another. And it goes on all over our world.

We're at war in the Middle East, and part of it is the antagonism between Muslims and Christians. Look what is happening over there in northern Iraq, where the Christians are being driven out, being murdered if they don't convert. ... We had Christians in the past who have done the same thing to Jewish people, to Muslim people. We've built up barriers, but now it's so important that we take those barriers away and re-enter into communication and love and human relationships, and it can happen.

I have a friend who was in the military in Iraq a few years ago. He was an interrogator at the prison of Abu Ghraib in Baghdad where, if you recall, the guards at that prison treated the Muslim prisoners with great contempt -- humiliated them, tortured them. And my friend, his name is Joshua Casteel, was a military careerist. He had been a captain in the Army, graduated from West Point, but was a very proficient linguist, and so he spoke Arabic with great facility, so he was interrogating.

He told how the soldiers had brought the prisoners in. Actually, they were picking them up at random almost in the neighborhood to interrogate them, and he said, "When they got to me, they had already been softened up so they'd be ready to talk." Well, this one prisoner (see, and this is what happens when you act on a human level) surprised Joshua.

When Joshua began to interrogate him, he spoke back, and he said, "Aren't you a Christian?"

Joshua is and said, "Yes."

"Well, what about what Jesus taught? You're supposed to love your enemies, do good to those who hurt you, so what are you doing here in our country, tearing it apart, treating us with hatred, torturing us?"

And Joshua was shocked, but it made him stop and realize, "Yes, I am a Christian. I do believe what Jesus said. We are supposed to love our enemies, do good to those who hurt us. How can I continue to add to the torture of this person?" And he began to enter into a conversation.

And so it was on a very human level they began to talk to one another. The man told him about his family and his children, and Joshua began to understand, to reach across the barrier that had separated them when he just thought of this as a prisoner, not as an individual person with a family, with children. He was ready to continue the torture through the interrogation, but then he engaged with the man.

See, [it's] the same thing that Jesus had done in that incident in the Gospel. When Jesus began to engage with the woman -- talk to her, listen to her -- it changed the whole dynamic, and so then it broke down the barrier. See, and that can happen on an individual level as it did for Joshua. After that, he had to give up the work he was doing. In fact, he realized he couldn't continue to be in a military that was waging this war in Iraq, and he got a conscientious objector status. He came back and began to teach the message of Jesus' nonviolence everywhere he could.

That's what we have to begin to do. And wouldn't it be true that if -- well what's going on in Ferguson, Mo., right now. What's happened there? Over the years, there have been barriers between the black people and the white people, and in that city, where the police force is almost all white, the black people felt the hatred and the discrimination. They were mistreated, and that began to build up in hatred and rage and then anger. Now it's all bursting out.

Those people in this example for all of us have to learn how to cross that barrier, cross that line to engage with each other as people, as humans, to understand one another, to understand each other's hurts and pains, and to begin to grow as a community together.

Jesus did it when he engaged with the woman. In his humanness, he was able to break down the barrier and to reach out and love. That can happen with all of us, but it has to start with a change in our hearts. We have to look to see if we have established, even in our minds and our hearts, even if it may not be in our situation where we live and so on -- what is our attitude? Do we really accept all members of the human family as our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God just as we are?

See, that has to be our attitude, and it may take a long time to begin to change. Jesus is able to do it quickly once he engaged with that woman. Then in his humanness, he saw her as a human person and he reached out with love to her, and she recognized him as son of God. So Jesus, in his humanness and in his divinity, is present there in this Gospel lesson for us to look upon.

And as he could heal that woman's daughter, he can heal our hearts and heal us to change, to have attitudes of love and reconciliation and peace. This is how we will learn to follow Jesus faithfully: by understanding his humanness, and then turning to him as God to bring about change in our hearts that will enable us to reach out in love to all of our brothers and sisters.

[Homily given at St. Philomena Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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