Have you ever been out minding your own business and had someone come up to you whom you were really not interested in talking to? It might have been someone asking for directions or a homeless person asking for change. It might have been someone in line at the checkout who for some reason tried to start up a conversation with you. Strangers can make us feel uncomfortable and suspicious. Our guard goes up because we are unsure what they might want from us. Most of the time, we prefer to be left alone.
That is the situation that Jesus and his disciples find themselves in in today’s gospel. They are outside the land of Israel in the pagan territories of Tyre and Sidon. As foreigners in a strange land, they would just as soon not have any attention drawn to them. If they had been in a car, they would have rolled up the windows and made their way straight to the next highway exit back to Galilee.
Then a pagan woman appears yelling out to them, asking Jesus to relieve her daughter of the demon that is tormenting her. They feel embarrassed and irritated. Trying to ignore her, they walk away as fast as they can. But she refuses to go away and only cries out the louder. Finally, Jesus is forced to speak with her.
What does He find? Is she just an ignorant, pagan woman? Does she have no idea to whom she is speaking or what she is asking for? On the contrary, Jesus finds in her a mother who is desperate to have someone help her afflicted daughter. And most of all, He finds a woman of great faith.
Jesus and His disciples took the time to speak with this foreigner, and they were deeply moved by what they found. They were so moved, in fact, that they have handed the story down to us over the centuries as an example of faith.
It is easy for us to write people off, especially those who are different than we are. We do not believe that we could ever learn anything from them. But every person - the stranger, the immigrant, the homeless - is made in the image and likeness of God. Each person is unique and loved personally by our Heavenly Father. Each person is endowed by God with gifts for a mission that only he or she can accomplish. And it could be that that person’s mission is to touch our hearts and teach us something about faith and love.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta often said that the poor are merely Christ appearing to us in a distressing disguise. Like the pagan woman in the gospel, God very often chooses to reveal Himself to us in the most unlikely of persons. That is why we have to be prepared to see the face of Christ in everyone. Jesus made it very clear to us that we will be judged on how we treat the least of His brothers and sisters.
Another point for us to consider is that everyone who is part of our life is there for a reason. Whether it is a lifelong friend, a family member or someone we just happen to bump into at a store, God meant for us to have some contact with them for a reason that only He knows. Some people are in our lives to be our friends, to laugh and cry with us and to support us. Those family and friends are great blessings to us.
But there are also people sent to us by God to teach us other lessons. They are the people who get under our skin and irritate us. They are the ones who just always seem to be saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. We would just as soon avoid them at all costs. However, God placed them in our lives to teach us lessons that our family and friends could not teach us. From them, we learn to be patient and to forgive. By listening to them and going out of our way to be friendly with them, we might learn that underneath their gruff exterior is a lonely heart and a needy soul. Our caring presence to them might be just what they need to find some relief from the demons that torment them. We also might find ourselves being touched by their faith and their insights into God.
Jesus never judged people by their appearances. He looked straight into a person’s soul. Whether they were a tax collector or Pharisee, Jew or foreigner, He spoke directly to their heart. Jesus loved without exception and without distinction. That is the way He loves each of us. And that is the way He commands us to love one another. If we are to do that, then we must be transformed through grace into the likeness of Jesus. We must have His eyes to see through the exterior appearances into the interior heart. We must have His ears to hear the pain and frustration that so often lie behind hurtful words. We must have His heart to truly care for those in need no matter how unappealing they may be or how much they might inconvenience us.
That is why we are gathered here today, to learn from the Master. The faith, hope and love we need are His to give us. He teaches it to us through His word. And He unites us to Himself through the miracle of the Eucharist which we are about to share. Here and now we can exchange our hurting, selfish hearts for loving hearts. Recognizing Him in the Body and Blood which is given to us, we can then recognize Him in the needy people He places in our path.