Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Response: Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8; Second Reading: Romans 11:13-15; 29-32; Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28

Our first reading begins the third part of the Book of Isaiah. It is therefore called Third Isaiah or Trito-Isaiah. This prophet is active in Jerusalem circa 530-515 B.C. His message moves away from the particularity of one chosen people to universality — the inclusion of all peoples and nations within God’s people. This movement is an important foundation for the Christian movement. It justified Christian missionaries like Barnabas and Paul to move from the mission to the Jews to the mission to the Gentiles (See Romans 10:20). Matthew’s gospel follows the same pattern. In his missionary instructions, he attributes to Jesus this command: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles.” But at the end of his gospel, Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations ….” The Gospel of John leads in the same direction. In John 1:11-13: “ … his own people did not receive him, but to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave  power to become children of God, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh….” Racial identity no longer mattered.

There were earlier trends in this same direction. For example, foreigners living among Israelites (Jews) already had recognized rights in the Torah itself. In Exodus 22:20, “You shall not wrong a stranger (foreigner) or oppress him, because you were a foreigner in the land of Egypt” (See also Exodus 12:48; 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 16:1). In verses omitted by our first reading, the prophet envisions foreigners who regret not being Israelites, saying, “Surely the Lord will separate us from his people.” But he assures them, “Foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, who keep the Sabbath, hold fast to my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain, (Jerusalem and the temple mount). They will be joyful in my house of prayer. Their sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Again, racial identity no longer mattered.

Psalm 67 is an appropriate response to the universality of the reading from Isaiah. The people’s response: “O God, let all the nations praise you.” The psalmist prays also that the Lord’s way will be known over the whole earth; that the nations will have joy in being guided by him; that all the ends of the earth will revere him. Psalm 67 also prepares us for the gospel of the day, in which Jesus responds favorably to the plea of a foreigner, a Canaanite woman, but she had to cleverly talk him into it. Our second reading, too, is concerned with the mission to the Gentiles (all nations).

In the second reading, Paul continues from last Sunday’s reading to ponder within himself the question of why Israel as a people, as a nation, did not accept Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah (Christ). He introduces himself as “apostle to the Gentiles,” (non-Jews). In fact, it was his work among the Gentiles that eventually earned him homicidal hatred from former colleagues and contributed to the riot in Jerusalem that led to his arrest and trial (See Acts 21:28-29). Despite all the sufferings Paul endured during decades of work in this apostolate, he writes to the Christians of Rome, “I glory in my ministry.” Why? “… so that I can make my own race jealous and thus save some of them.” What does this mean? The Gentiles were once separated from God; and because of this separation, God was merciful to them. In Paul’s mind, it was now the Jewish people who were disobedient to God. Paul’s success among the Gentiles will make them jealous and will dispose them to respond favorably to God’s mercy, calling them to accept Jesus as their Messiah. Paul proclaims an important principle: “The gifts (detailed in last Sunday’s second reading) and the call of God are irrevocable.” They are still the beloved chosen people, but so are we Gentiles.

In the arrangement of catechetical material in his gospel, Matthew, previously to the episode in today’s gospel, described an encounter between Jesus and the Scripture scholars (scribes) from Jerusalem. The hot topic: What makes a person ritually unclean? Jesus shocks his opponents with his answer, which implied that there is no such a thing as ritual uncleanness. Matthew is well aware that the scribes also distinguished between ritually clean and unclean people. Gentiles were, of course, considered unclean (Nothing to do with hygiene!). So, he decides to engage in a “Sock it to ‘em” with his own opponents. Therefore, he adds a story about Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman to the point of even granting a request to heal her daughter. Here is how he does it. As our gospel reading begins, Jesus goes into Gentile (read “unclean”) territory — Phoenicia with its two great cities, Tyre and Sidon.

Matthew picked up the story from Mark 7:24-30, but made a significant change. Mark mentioned the same region, Tyre and Sidon, and noted that a Greek, Syrophoenician woman (read “heathen, unclean”), came to Jesus. Matthew writes, “a Canaanite woman,” and that is about as bad as bad can get. Why? The Old Testament had ordered the extermination of the heathen Canaanites for their idolatry to make room for the Israelites (See Exodus 23:23; Deut. 7:2-5). Times had changed. This Gentile foreigner — worse yet, a woman — dared to approach Jesus. Her daughter was ill or, as the story goes, “was tormented by a demon.” Matthew is still in the part of his gospel concerned with the mission to the Jews. The disciples want to be rid of her. Jesus seems to agree, as he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman persisted, honoring Jesus with obedience, and saying, “Lord, help me!” Jesus quoted a proverb, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,” a label sometimes applied to enemies, as in Psalm 22:16, 20. The woman’s response recognizes a common practice — giving scraps to the dogs waiting under the table. “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eats the scraps that fall from the table.” Jesus’ final words must have astonished his disciples, “O woman, great is your faith!” Yes, faith, in a heathen woman! Her prayer was granted. Little do we understand how radical this liberal Jesus was, and what that can teach us about respect and acceptance of minorities and outsiders.