By Father Donald Dilger
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
The first reading is an excerpt from the third part of the Book of Isaiah. The prophet whose oracles appear in this section is called “Trito-Isaiah,” that is “Third Isaiah.” The approximate dates of his ministry: 530-515 B.C. While Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55, was in Babylon with his fellow exiles, Third Isaiah is in Jerusalem with the returnees. The return from exile began after the Persians under Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, 540-538 B.C. The temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt and dedicated, 516 B.C., in the latter part of Third Isaiah’s ministry. His message moves toward universality, the inclusion of all people among God’s people. This is important Old Testament foundation for the Christian movement, to enable Christian missionaries, 500 plus years later, to move from the mission for the Jews to the mission for the Gentiles. Matthew’s gospel follows the same pattern — moving from the mission for the Jews, 10:5-6, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles,” to 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . .”
Foreigners, non-Jews, already had limited rights expressly legislated in the Torah. Exodus 22:21, “You shall not wrong a stranger (foreigner) or oppress him, because you were a foreigner in the land of Egypt.” Also Exodus 23:9; Exodus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 16:1. Third Isaiah goes way beyond rights extended to foreigners living among Israelites in the Land of Promise. In some lines omitted from today’s first reading the prophet imagines foreigners with an inferiority complex worrying about being rejected by the Lord, saying, “Surely the Lord will separate us from his people.” Then 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 my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain . . . ,” (Jerusalem and its temple to the Lord). They will be joyful in the Lord’s house, their sacrifices accepted on the altar of the temple. The reading closes with words used by Jesus, Mark 11:17, to justify his attack on business being conducted in the temple, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The Responsorial Psalm 67 is an appropriate choice to respond to the universalism of the first reading. The Psalmist speaks (sings), “May your way be known upon earth, among all nations your salvation.” Every verse chosen for the response strikes this theme. “May the nations be glad . . . the nations on the earth you guide.” “May all the peoples praise you . . . , may all the ends of the earth revere him.” The people’s response insists four times, “O God, let all the nations praise you.” This Psalm responds just as well to the gospel — a story of Jesus answering the prayer of a woman who is neither an Israelite, nor even lives in the boundaries of the Land of Promise. The same holds true for our second reading — Paul directly addressing the Gentiles.
The second reading is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In the context he is engaged in a kind of dialogue with himself searching for an answer to the question, “Why did Israel as a people, as a nation, not accept Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ)? He introduces himself as “Apostle to the Gentiles” who glories (boasts) about his ministry to them rather than to his fellow Jews. He proposes that by reaching beyond his own people he might make some of his own people jealous “and thus save some of them.” He notes, and we do well to remember, that the call of Israel is not over, but is forever. They will always be God’s people. The Gentiles, says Paul, at one time disobeyed God, but now through Paul receive God’s mercy. The Jews have now disobeyed God, so that they too may receive God’s mercy by virtue of the mercy God gave to the Gentiles.
As the gospel reading begins, Jesus leaves the Holy Land for a brief excursion into the region of Tyre and Sidon, two Phoenician coastal cities. A Canaanite woman of that district approaches Jesus, addressing him with a lordly title and a royal title, “Lord, Son of David, have pity on me.” Mark’s version of the story calls her “a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician woman.” Matthew changes this to “a Canaanite woman.” This change heightens the action of Jesus towards her because in the Old Testament, the Canaanites were the despised race that had to be eliminated as the Israelites entered the Land of Promise. Clearly Matthew teaches that the Christian mission will not be bound by ancient prejudice. The woman tells Jesus that her daughter is tormented by a demon.
Jesus at first ignores her. Jesus and Company must have moved along because the disciples ask Jesus to get rid of her because she “keeps calling after us.” It is difficult for anyone to resist the plea of a woman desperate to help her child. Jesus says to his disciples, perhaps in the hearing of the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This is how Matthew divides the time of Jesus from the time of the Church. The time of the Church will begin at the end of the gospel with the Great Commission to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” 28:19. This incident is a preview of the future of the mission to the Gentiles, all nations.
The woman falls to her knees as a gesture of respect, “Lord, help me!” Jesus finally speaks to her but not so kindly, though the bite of Jesus’ statement is lessened by the fact that it was a proverb. He says, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” The woman’s wit is as sharp as a tack, “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus replies to this Canaanite woman, “O woman, great is your faith.” It may not seem so to us, but this statement was intended by Jesus (and Matthew) as a shock to racist, foreign-hating, misogynist elements present in many societies, then and now. The disciples of Jesus were certainly shocked that Jesus could and did attribute faith to a despised outsider. Recall that in John’s gospel, 4:27, the disciples were amazed that Jesus was talking to a woman. She also was an outsider, a despised Samaritan. Little do we understand how radical this “liberal” Jesus was, and how attractive Christianity was to what dominant society would call “the lower classes.”