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20th Sunday in ordinary time: It is faith that matters

Today’s readings: Isaiah 56, 1.6-7; Romans 11, 13-15.29-32; Matthew 15, 21-28.

Ideally, religions should transcend boundaries and by nature be inclusive, promoting unity in diversity and fraternity. But as we all know, the truth on the ground is very different. As religions have evolved over time, authors like Sam Harris were proven right. Harris blames religions for the violence and division that have marked humanity and the world for too long now.

We speak a lot about inclusion but the culture we live in is still one of exclusion. Exclusion, even when justified as necessary, is always painful and sinful. We need to be honest here. It is good that the Church speaks out against all forms of exclusion. But it is scandalous when the Church itself excludes and perpetuates systems of exclusion.

Today’s gospel witnesses to the tension that characterised the early communities between fidelity to Hebrew tradition and the idea of universal salvation seen as accomplished in Christ. On one hand, Jesus insists on his being sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; yet on the other hand, he goes beyond the boundaries of tradition and underlines the fact that it is faith that saves, not religion.

So Matthew, writing his gospel specifically for the Jews, enshrines this prophetic gesture of Jesus which eliminates ethnic differences and condemns exclusion. This is something that even Paul does, himself a Jew and jealous for his own tradition, yet acknowledging himself as an apostle sent to the Gentiles.

The culture of exclusion seems to be here to stay. We see almost everywhere today real and dangerous temptations to build walls of segregation. It is almost with nostalgia that we look back to the 1960s and 1980s when the civil rights movement in the US and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa were prophetically driven by Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela respectively.

Their struggles were rewarded and their achievements were remarkable. Yet the dragon of exclusion and segregation is again raising its head, and history seems condemned to repeat itself. Exclusion is a crime, especially when perpetrated in the name of religion. We still experience forms of exclusion in our communities with the same dialectics of primitive Christianity when it was so easy for the prophets of doom to see heresy, deviation and disobedience wherever they looked.

For too long, the defence of religion always came at the cost of people. Standing by what the gospel narrates today, we still look down on those who, from their standpoint as excluded people, keep “shouting after us”. Our communities can still be comfort zones, insensitive to so many who feel exiled at our altars, alien to our celebrations, and strangers to the message we preach.

In a world that is diagnosed as divided and divisive, religion should be therapeutical. If it is not, then we would be better off without it.

The statement of Jesus addressing a Canaanite woman in a pagan territory, “Woman, you have great faith”, should drive home and forcefully the message that, at the end of the day, it is only faith that matters. Religion becomes secondary. Faith is broader and deeper than religion, just as God’s kingdom stretches out much further than the boundaries of churches.

Things would be radically different in our churches if we were to give heed today to Isaiah’s prophetic words in the first reading: “Have a care for justice, act with integrity”. Isaiah was addressing ‘foreigners’ who, in spite of their non-belonging, were invited at the table of salvation.

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