For the last two Sundays, some of you spotted two unfamiliar boys serving at Mass. They came here with their parents, friends of mine, and the whole family visited Scotland for the first time. They hadn’t known much about the people living here so they had had some mildly stereotypical views of Scots and of the country. But once they put their feet on our soil, they quickly found out that we are nothing like that; they found people here so nice, so warm, open and welcoming that they were somehow overwhelmed by this experience. They fell in love with Scotland – really no surprise – and promised to return to see more! Their totally positive perception was possible because they didn’t cling to stereotypes they held, and they were open to revise their views.
Today’s gospel seems to present Jesus acting in a very cold, even rude, manner. Initially he ignores the cries of the woman; and then, prompted by the Apostles, he rejects her as pagan, comparing her to dogs. Jesus seems to be xenophobic, unwilling to help on a religious and ethnic basis. This kind of attitude is completely unthinkable in our modern world, unless you are Israeli or Palestinian, Sunni or Shia, Muslim or Christian, atheist or religious… Actually this list can go on and on almost indefinitely. We might ponder on the complications of governing different religious and ethnic factions in Iraq, while we ourselves are facing a possible split within our own country in the name of similar principles. And I don’t mean the referendum, but grudges and resentments that might cause a rift in Scotland regardless its outcome. Drawing dividing lines and defining enemies is much simpler than working towards peaceful coexistence and mutual respect, where differences and variety are perceived as valuable and enriching factors.
We need to broaden our perspectives to learn the lesson that today’s gospel provides. The historical community of Israel was rather exclusive, reducing contact with other nations to a necessary minimum. On the one hand, they perceived themselves as superior to people around them, while on the other hand they were afraid of them. It’s an attitude common to all relatively closed communities. So, now we have the Apostles led by Jesus through pagan territory, the one they have always avoided. They feel more than uncomfortable when a local woman begins adding to their distress by following them, crying and calling for help. For a Jew of that time, any direct contact with a pagan and a woman was just beyond comprehension. So they appeal to Jesus to deal with her. Why him? They secretly blame him for the whole situation they are in. They ask him to deal with the woman, not out sympathy for her but out of their own discomfort. Jesus’ reply: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel’ is a rebuke towards their self-regard of Jewish superiority, a sting piercing their pride.
The exchange of Jesus with the woman touches upon another interesting aspect of the whole situation. Pagans often returned the Jewish attitudes of exclusivity and superiority with scorn and mockery. Jesus’ comparison to children, dogs and food simply defuses that woman’s possible attitude. Her reply clearly presents her request as being made on a humanitarian level: religious, ethnic or cultural differences have nothing to do with that.
What I love about Scotland – landscapes aside – is that as a nation we are inclusive and welcoming, ready to leave our comfort zones – though sometimes reluctantly – to embrace different cultures, nationalities and religions, and to make them part of our country’s fabric. The more we implement this attitude on a personal level, the greater we are. Because, at the end of the day, each one of us is made in God’s image.