Creating Space for Encounter

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Naomi said, “See now! Your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her god. Go back after your sister-in-law!” But Ruth said, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! For wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

Ruth 1: 15-17

A great figure of the Hebrew Scriptures is Ruth, the daughter-in-law of Naomi, whose love of Naomi leads her to forsake her own land and people. According to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, this decision of Ruth plays a key role in the development of the Davidic line and so in all of salvation history. In today’s brief reading from the opening of the Book of Ruth, we learn that this has come about through a series of events set in motion by the original emigration from a famine-afflicted Israel of Naomi’s husband Elimelech.

It is impossible to read the opening of the Book of Ruth without becoming mindful of the crisis of immigration of our day. In what we take to be unparalleled numbers, refugees and migrants are flooding into Europe from Africa and the Middle East. In the United States a political campaign is playing on the voters’ fears of those immigrants who are coming from Mexico, Central and South America. Especially in the Mediterranean hundreds of people are dying in an attempt to escape war and persecution and in search of a better life.

In his Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis quotes Pope Paul VI:  “. . . the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others.”  It is not easy for us to renounce what we take to be “our rights.”  To hear that we are to place our goods more generously at the service of others is to experience being struck at the core of our selfishness and indifference. The spiritual “crisis” of immigration springs from our fear that some of what is ours will be taken from us, that strangers may dare to lay claim to what we feel we have earned and so rightly belongs to us.

There is a Chinese parable in which a person asks to see what heaven is like. He is brought into a room where there is a sumptuous banquet but all the people are starving to death. The reason is that their chopsticks are very long, and they are unable to get the food to their mouths. The person says to his guide that now he has seen hell and may he now see heaven. He is brought into the same setting, but instead of starving all are flourishing because they feed each other. There is a comparable Christian teaching in the multiplication of the loaves. When the bread and fish are shared, there is not only enough for the thousands gathered but many baskets left over? . Human self-sufficiency is an illusion? . We are not merely related but are actually substantially interconnected? . In the last analysis, the well being of any of us depends on the well being of all of us.

We tend to take for granted that our right to private property is inalienable. It is doubtless true that this sense does drive  human motivation and progress, but it also makes the insights and call of the gospel more difficult for us. It makes Pope Francis’ call to place our “goods more generously at the service of others” actually quite foreign to our common sense. We fear that there will not be enough if too many make such a demand on our possessions.

The spiritual imperative does not provide a ready political solution to the flood of migrants and refugees, but it does challenge us to practice renunciation and generosity. Can we prepare for a gospel based participation in this political challenge by attending today to each time there are movements of possessiveness, acquisitiveness, and selfishness in us? It is so often our attachment to our possessions, our property, and our time that keeps us from living what Pope Francis calls “a culture of encounter.”  In some small way today, may we detach from our obsession with personal possession and gain even a small added moment of freedom for encountering the other who enters our world.

In fact, in an age of such vast movements of migration, large numbers of people are leaving their homelands, with a suitcase full of fears and desires, to undertake a hopeful and dangerous trip in search of more humane living conditions. Often, however, such migration gives rise to suspicion and hostility, even in ecclesial communities, prior to any knowledge of the migrants’ lives or their stories of persecution and destitution. In such cases, suspicion and prejudice conflict with the biblical commandment of welcoming with respect and solidarity the stranger in need.

On the other hand, we sense in our conscience the call to touch human misery, and to put into practice the commandment of love that Jesus left us when he identified himself with the stranger, with the one who suffers, with all the innocent victims of violence and exploitation. Because of the weakness of our nature, however, “we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length” (Evangelii Gaudium, 270).

The courage born of faith, hope and love enables us to reduce the distances that separate us from human misery. Jesus Christ is always waiting to be recognized in migrants and refugees, in displaced persons and in exiles, and through them he calls us to share our resources, and occasionally to give up something of our acquired riches. Pope Paul VI spoke of this when he said that “the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others” (Octogesima Adveniens, 23).

The multicultural character of society today, for that matter, encourages the Church to take on new commitments of solidarity, communion and evangelization. Migration movements, in fact, call us to deepen and strengthen the values needed to guarantee peaceful coexistence between persons and cultures. Achieving mere tolerance that respects diversity and ways of sharing between different backgrounds and cultures is not sufficient. This is precisely where the Church contributes to overcoming frontiers and encouraging the “moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization … towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world” (Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2014).

Pope Francis, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2015

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