Aug 16, 2020: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Isaiah 56:1, 6-7

Thus says the LORD:
Observe what is right, do what is just;
for my salvation is about to come,
my justice, about to be revealed.

The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
ministering to him,
loving the name of the LORD,
and becoming his servants—
all who keep the sabbath free from profanation
and hold to my covenant,
them I will bring to my holy mountain
and make joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be acceptable on my altar,
for my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all peoples.

This week’s first reading is from what scripture scholars refer to as Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). The Israelites have returned to the Holy Land from their exile in Babylon, and foreigners are coming to know Yahweh. This presents a problem similar to the one that Jesus will face in our gospel reading: How should Jews respond to these foreigners? Should they be allowed to worship in the newly rebuilt temple?

Isaiah reminds the faithful of their covenant relationship with God and proclaims that salvation and righteousness are available to all.

Thus says the LORD: Observe what is right, do what is just;

The reading opens with a double imperative: observe justice (mishpāt); do righteousness (sedāqâ)! The word-pair enunciates Israel’s primary ethical obligation, which is social responsibility.

for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed.

The imperative is followed by a divine promise, which is also twofold: salvation (yshûâ) is to come; righteousness (sedāqâ) is to be revealed.

A covenant relationship is presumed here, as the language indicates.  Justice and righteousness are associated with the law. The promise of salvation suggests the people are in some kind of desperate straits, and God, the people’s covenant partner, promises to intervene.

And the foreigners

The first verse pertains to members of the covenant community. The verses that follow pertain to those who are presently outside the community but who have shown their desire to become part of it.

who join themselves to the LORD,

Probably by becoming proselytes: converts to Judaism from paganism.

ministering to him,

Most likely by participating in certain forms of worship.

Loving the name of the LORD,

An expression implying allegiance to God.

and becoming his servants —

These four forms of attentive behavior demonstrate their commitment to the God of Israel.

All who keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant,

In addition, they have committed themselves to Sabbath observance and fidelity to the covenant and its responsibilities. These people may be foreigners, but both internally and externally they are one with the community of believers.

Them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer;

In response to their fidelity, God invites them into the liturgical life of the community. They are encouraged to proceed to God’s holy mountain, the site considered the dwelling place of God on earth.

The shrine or temple is considered a house of prayer, and these worthy foreigners will be allowed to rejoice here as members of the praying community.

Their holocausts and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar,

Their sacrifices and burnt offerings will find the same favor with God as do those of the bloodline of Israel. Their participation in the life of prayer and sacrifice is the crowning act of their acceptance.

For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

The final phrase is noteworthy: With only a few words, God dismantles the entire concept of ritual holiness as exclusively Israel’s prerogative. Now the temple is designated as a house of prayer for all people, not a national shrine reserved for the elect. Now God is accessible to all, not merely to those of the bloodline of Israel. Salvation and righteousness embrace all.

2nd Reading – Romans 11:13-15, 29-32

Brothers and sisters:
I am speaking to you Gentiles.
Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles,
I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous
and thus save some of them.
For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world,
what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.
Just as you once disobeyed God
but have now received mercy because of their disobedience,
so they have now disobeyed in order that,
by virtue of the mercy shown to you,
they too may now receive mercy.
For God delivered all to disobedience,
that he might have mercy upon all.

Last week we heard the opening verses of Romans Chapter 9, where Paul laments over Israel for their failure to recognize the Messiah. The remainder of Chapter 9 and all of Chapter 10 continue with this lament with numerous references to the Old Testament.

In this week’s reading, although we have moved ahead two chapters, Paul is still wrestling with his sorrow over the fact that many of his fellow Jews do not share his belief that through Jesus Christ salvation is offered to the whole human race. Paul comforts himself with the hope that while some of the Jews are refusing the invitation to Christ now, they will not always refuse it.

Brothers and sisters: I am speaking to you Gentiles. 

Speaking directly to the Gentile converts in the Roman community, Paul continues his discussion of the privileged position occupied by the Jewish community in the plan of God.

Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles,

Paul is proud to be known as the “apostle to the Gentiles.”  Although he is a Christian, Paul still views himself as a member of the Jewish race.

I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them.

Without in any way diminishing the salvific import of the conversion of the Gentiles, Paul maintains that it also serves a secondary purpose.  Namely, the Jewish people will envy the way the Gentiles have been caught up in the embrace of God, and they themselves will turn to the gospel.

“Paul evangelized the Gentiles of necessity, addressing himself to them and showing that the prophets had predicted this many centuries before. His aim was to make the Jews jealous and thus encourage some of them to come to salvation also.” [Theodoret of Cyr (ca. A.D. 450), Interpretation of the Fourteen Epistles of Paul Romans 11:14]

For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world,

Israel’s rejection of the gospel has led to the reconciliation of the Gentiles to God and even the whole universe which was cursed along with Adam.

what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

If the Jews’ rejection of the gospel has brought reconciliation with God to the rest of the world, how much more will the acceptance of the gospel effect?  (This is an example of an a fortiori argument: If this is how it is in one situation, how much more so will it be in that one?)

Paul then answers his own question: their acceptance will bring about life from death. Once they are baptized they die with Christ and rise again in his new life.

The reversal of fortunes is clear. It was because of the rejection of the gospel by the people of Israel that Paul turned to the Gentile mission; now it is because of the acceptance of the Gentile world that the Jews will be converted.

For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.

A reiteration of the privileges God bestowed upon the people of Israel (Romans 9:1-5, which we heard last week). They were the ones called to be God’s special people, and it was to them God granted extraordinary gifts.

Just as you once disobeyed God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience,

The Gentiles have no reason to feel superior, for they had begun as disobedient sinners, and they have been granted divine mercy only because of the disobedience of the Jews.

so they have now disobeyed

Gentile disobedience was disbelief in God. The attitude of Jews toward Christ represents the same sort of disobedience.

in order that, by virtue of the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.

If God has shown mercy to those who originally had worshiped other gods, surely God will show mercy to the nation that was called to be God’s own people.

For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.

No one is in a position to boast; both Jews and Gentiles have as groups been unfaithful to God, who makes use of such infidelity to manifest to all of them his bounty and mercy.  All are shown mercy, not because they have earned it, but because God is gracious.

“It is usually thought that those who have sinned badly by not accepting the promise of God cannot receive mercy if they do not demonstrate their sorrow, because those who have sinned badly cannot be forgiven without tears and wailing. But Paul shows that these things are not required at the start, because God’s gift freely pardons sins in baptism.” [The Ambrosiaster (ca. A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles Romans 11,28]

Gospel – Matthew 15:21-28

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! 
My daughter is tormented by a demon.” 
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. 
Jesus’ disciples came and asked him,
“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
He said in reply,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” 
He said in reply,
“It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.” 
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters.” 
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
“O woman, great is your faith! 
Let it be done for you as you wish.” 
And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.

Our gospel readings now move forward to the middle of Matthew’s 15th chapter. We have skipped over Jesus’ ongoing controversies with the Pharisees. In this week’s passage, we hear of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, a story of several important and interrelated issues.

Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

These cities are centers of commerce in Phoenicia between thirty and fifty miles northwest of the Lake of Gennesaret; this is Gentile territory.

The frequent invectives of the prophets against these two pagan cities made them for the Jews proverbial examples of corruption and wickedness. But Jesus wanted to avoid the harassment of the Pharisees and Herod, and to gain the advantage of closer contact with his apostles in peaceful solitude. He could be sure that no Jew would follow him into this enemy territory.

However, as we will see, Jesus is recognized as soon as he entered the area.

And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord,

The woman is called a Canaanite, a designation not generally used at this time in history. It calls to mind the people who occupied the land before the Israelites drove them out and took control of the Promised Land. She is not just a Gentile, but one who has always been an enemy of the Jews: a member of one of the nations ancient Israel had hated the most. Not only this, she is an unattended woman who has spoken to a man in public; she has broken many taboos.

Jesus has disregarded territorial boundaries, and now the woman disregards appropriate social decorum.

Son of David! 

“Son of David” is a title with Messianic overtones, which is interesting coming from a Canaanite. As such, she wouldn’t be expected to perpetuate the Davidic dynasty and David was not known as a healer.

My daughter is tormented by a demon.”

A third strike working against the mother: not only is she from an enemy tribe, and a woman, she is asking for the cure of a girl and not the more favored male child.

But he did not say a word in answer to her. 

The woman has presented Jesus with a dilemma. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus instructed his disciples not to “to into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep to the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5b-6).

If Jesus responds to this woman, he will be acting contrary to his own instructions. If he rejects her, he will be going against his own innate compassion.

His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” 

Perhaps because of Jesus’ previous instructions, or perhaps because she is a Canaanite, the disciples feel no responsibility to help the woman. They act just as they did at the feeding of the five thousand when the crowd was hungry: they want to send her away.

He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Rather than sending the woman away, Jesus is honest about his dilemma.

But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”

The woman persists. She pays Jesus homage, calls him “Lord,” and implores him again.

He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus obviously does not want to reject the woman because he continues to engage her in conversation. Using an expression of the time, Jesus explains to the woman that it would not be right to give to her what belongs to others.

The reference to “dogs” is a derisive term Jews used for Gentiles in reference to their perceived lack of ethnic purity. The term “Gentile dog” was about as customary an expression for Gentiles among Jews as the term “damn Yankee” in the United States south. In the domestic analogy Jesus employs, the specific term Jesus uses here translates as “house dogs.”

Why did Jesus speak so harshly to her? Was he trying to shock her, put her off, test her faith? We can never know for sure, but there’s a theory that great teachers have great personalities, and the greatest teachers have outrageous personalities. A great teacher, says this theory, is the students’ adversary and conqueror, leaving the student grateful.

She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

The woman’s response shows that she is neither insulted nor deterred, for the well-being of her daughter is at stake. She isn’t defensive, either. In fact, her repartee shows extraordinary ingenuity: she changed his word “house dogs” to a diminutive meaning “pet dogs,” “little dogs,” or “puppy dogs.” In doing this, she humbly but wittily accepts the secondary role that Jews accorded Gentiles and turns to her own advantage the words intended to belittle her.

After all, Jesus had come into her territory, she had not pursued him. Once he was there, she felt she had a right to elicit from him the same wondrous power she must have heard he freely bestowed elsewhere.

Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! 

Her rejoinder rings true to Jesus. Many of the house of Israel do not have faith in him, yet here is a foreigner who does have faith in Jesus and asks for a healing, not for herself, but for her daughter.

This final reply from Jesus is as enthusiastic and warm as his initial approach appeared to be aloof and cold. In all of Matthew’s gospel, only this woman is said to have “great” faith. Contrast this statement with last week’s gospel reading, when Jesus admonished Peter, his own apostle, for his lack of faith when walking on the water.

Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

Moved by her faith, Jesus yields to her wishes and heals her daughter. Jesus probably came into the territory with no thought of healing the sick, but the scope of his ministry was expanded through the insistence of a woman whose love for others could not be thwarted by apparent disdain. This prompted Jesus to move beyond the limited confines of his own cultural experience.

This story foreshadows the commissioning of Jesus’ disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). It also emphasizes that the primary component in any healing is faith. We don’t know that the daughter was even present, but her mother’s faith is so strong that the daughter “was healed from that hour.”

Connections and Themes

A human reality.  In order to define itself, every religious, social, or political group must delineate clearly what it is and what it is not. Those who wish to be members of these groups must conform themselves to their cultural definitions, which determine who is in the group and who is not. Having such definitions is not inappropriate; in fact, it is necessary. However, when these definitions determine not only membership within a particular group but general acceptability, they begin to function in ways that are biased and discriminatory and harmful to all involved.

We do not usually consider the limitations of culture when we think of the incarnation. We find it difficult to entertain the possibility that Jesus was ever in any way biased. This is unfortunate, because this tends to make Jesus less than human, and it minimized the extraordinariness of those actions that break through the limitations of his culture. Jesus entered deeply into human reality, becoming a man of his own limited time and culture. At the same time, he was open enough to break out of the limitation of his cultural identity.  In today’s gospel, this was accomplished through the agency of one whose gender, culture, and religious commitment made her unsuitable according to the standards of Jesus’ culture. This should teach us not to marginalize people because of their cultural biases, for we may thereby be forfeiting an offer of God’s grace.

Prophetic fulfillment.  Jesus’ openness to “the other” finds a precedent in the prophetic tradition. Isaiah spoke of a time when outsiders would join insiders in worshiping God, thus dissolving the categories of insider and outsider. He was, of course, referring to the age of eschatological fulfillment. This age dawned with the coming of Jesus. He himself moved out of the constraints of his own cultural world-view, and he directs us to do the same.

The issue here is not merely universalism. Rather, it is unity in the diversity of that universalism. In the kingdom of God, one group does not force another to conform to authentic yet humanly determined standards. Instead, people are accepted along with their own cultural profiles. The readings for today show us the outdatedness of exclusionary distinctions. Unfortunately, they are still operating in our communities today. People are either excluded because of gender, culture, or religious perspective, or included only because they are able and willing to conform to discriminatory standards. We still have much to learn in this area.

God’s universal embrace.  Even Jesus was rejected because he did not conform to the image of the Messiah that prevailed in his day. One might think such rejection would result in rejection of those perpetrators by God.  However, such was not the case. God’s embrace enclosed even those who rejected Jesus, and God’s plan of salvation unfolded in a new way. An invitation to enter the kingdom was issued to the Gentiles, those who had been considered outsiders. If outsiders are now insiders, what has happened to the former insiders? Paul insists they are still insiders. God has not simply shifted the identifying boundaries; God has dissolved them. In the interim between the dawning of the eschatological age and the end of time, the invitation to be included remains open to all.