From the moment we manage to get our little bodies to stand erect, we encounter boundaries. Mom and Dad set up safety gates to keep us within a well-defined, safe space; they “child-proof” cabinet doors and cupboards and electric outlets so we won’t hurt ourselves. Often their own hands and arms and legs serve as the boundary, stopping us from running off into the street or into unsafe waters.
Growing up is about learning to recognize and deal with boundaries: how to safely negotiate our way through potentially dangerous places and situations. We learn to recognize social boundaries that keep defined and understood relationships functioning as they should: we recognize the boundaries that govern our different relationships with employers and employees, with teachers and students, with professional associates and acquaintances, with customers and clients.
But sometimes we hide behind boundaries. We stay within safely artificial boundaries that we believe God has established. We settle within our comfort zones, sometimes mistakenly seeing them as correct and proper distances. Fear becomes a boundary that shields us from encountering people of different races and cultures and religions and nationalities – such boundaries become walls that isolate us from those we prefer to have nothing to do with. And there are those boundaries we establish to preserve our own status, our own wealth, our own sense of ego and self-importance.
We feel safer, but over time we begin to sense in our souls that we are missing something in our lives as we live on the edge of such “boundaries.” Some boundaries enable us to function as a society and a community – but other boundaries, in fact, preserve dysfunction.
Without realizing it, even God becomes out-of-bounds in our lives.
Today’s Gospel is about crossing boundaries. First, Jesus travels through the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile area considered “unclean” by the Jews. By crossing that boundary, Jesus manifests the love of God for all. A second boundary is crossed by the Canaanite woman, who dares to approach Jesus (something that just wasn’t done) and speaks up for her daughter and her own self-worth as a woman of God. Her boldness is an act of faith in the mercy of God that she recognizes in Jesus’ very presence; her faith results in the collapse of that boundary that unjustly and cruelly isolates her from the rest of society. The mercy of God enables us to break down boundaries and walls that paralyze us in dysfunction and estrangement. Pope Francis often speaks of reaching out to those on the boundaries or “peripheries,” to those who are driven to the margins and edges of society by poverty, violence and illness. Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman illuminates our own vision to recognize those divisions and chasms between us and others and to go to the peripheries and cross those boundaries that are obstacles to realizing God’s kingdom of justice and peace in this time and place of ours.