20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A. – August 20, 2023

 

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A. – August 20, 2023

Isaiah 56: 1, 6-7; Romans 11: 13-15; 29-32; Matthew 15: 21-28

 

Theme: Faith with Persistence and Salvation for All Believers

The Scripture readings last Sunday taught us about the importance of prayer life. Elijah went to the mountain Horeb to meet with God in prayer. Jesus dismissed the crowds and his disciples and went to an isolated place to spend time with his Father in prayer. Paul was concerned about his fellow Israelites who were not praying to Jesus at all because they did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. We learned that we should be the men and women of prayer. In prayer, we first need to recognize the presence of God in our midst. God comes to us, not necessarily in the drama (strong wind, earthquake, and fire) as Elijah thought, but in the simple and little events of our lives. Prayer gathers the people of God together without discrimination. This is what the Bible readings today teach us. They all call Gentiles and Jews to be together. Jesus came for everyone, and salvation is for everyone.

In the first reading of today, the prophet Isaiah asks the chosen people to accept the foreigners to worship together with them because salvation is not only for them but for everyone. Let us recall the context of this reading to better understand it. This story is taken from ch. 56 which is the Third Isaiah. Note that the book of Isaiah is divided into three parts. The First Isaiah (ch. 1-39) talks about the people of Israel before they were deported to exile in Babylon. The Second Isaiah (ch. 40-55) covers the time during the Babylonian exile. And the Third Isaiah (ch. 56-66) speaks of them after their return from exile. So, our passage is part of the Third Isaiah. The chosen people are already back on their land. Upon arrival, they found many foreigners living in their country. Many Jews opposed the non-Jews to worship together with them in the Temple. The author of this Third Isaiah had to face this situation. In our passage particularly, he reminds his fellow Jews about God’s justice which will dawn soon. Therefore, they need to observe what is right and do what is just, meaning they should accept foreigners to worship together with them. God declared that his House “shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (v. 7).

This reading also applies to us. Many Christians today do not accept others to join the group ministries where they are (Altar servers, Eucharist ministers, Choir, Ushers, etc.). There are others who consider the Church as a private institution of their families, ethnicity, social class, and race, then excluding the poor and those who are considered “outsiders”. This first reading teaches us that the Church, the “House of God”, is the House of Prayer for all people who join themselves to the Lord. Isaiah asks us to do what is just and right because the justice of God is about to be revealed. To do what is right and just in this context means to accept and welcome people from all backgrounds and social classes to join our faith community and worship God together with us. We should not just wait for them to come to us, but we are called to go toward them and minister to them. This is what Jesus did in our Gospel story.

The Gospel passage that we heard tells us the story of the faith of a Canaanite woman. Jesus left his territory and traveled some miles to the region of Tyre and Sidon to meet this woman who represents all Gentiles and all those who are considered “outsiders”. Note that Jews and Gentiles do not get along because the Jews consider them “outsiders” and “unchosen” people. We are in a scenario in which Jesus, a Jew, came to meet one Gentile woman. Jesus breaks the wall that separated the Jews from the Gentiles. He left heaven and came into the world to cancel the distance between heaven and earth. Jesus continues this mission of proximity until today. This proximity with our Lord is more effective in the celebration of the Eucharist when we become one with him and one with our brothers and sisters in the Holy Communion. So with Jesus, there is no more distance between us and God, and between us and our fellow humans. All of us (Jews and Gentiles, poor and rich, white and black) have become children of God. Therefore, we Christians are called to continue the same mission and break the wall that separates us from God and from one another.  

 

As the conversation unfolds, the woman makes her request three times. In the first two times, the woman got “bad” answers from Jesus that could discourage her and even could open the wounds of the conflicts that existed between them (Gentiles) and the Jews. The first answer of Jesus is silence. One French saying says, “A fool is answered with silence.” This woman could interpret the silence of Jesus as if Jesus considers her as stupid. The second answer of Jesus is, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (V. 24, NABRE). The stress is on the word “only”, which could remind the woman that she is still an “outsider” even in matters of salvation. The third answer of Jesus is even more shocking, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs”. All Jews and Gentiles understand well these expressions. Children represent Jews, and dogs stand for Gentiles. Again, this woman could understand that Jesus considers her and all Gentiles unworthy. Many people who read this Gospel passage think that Jesus was disrespectful to this woman. This is not true. If we focus on Jesus’ answers, we miss the target point of this meeting. We should rather focus on the objective that both Jesus and the woman assign in this conversation. On one hand, Jesus came to this pagan territory with a specific goal to extend his saving mission to the Gentiles. So, in this conversation, his objective is to draw this woman, and through here all Gentiles, to embrace the salvation that he came to bring to all mankind. On the other hand, the objective of the woman is to profess her faith in Jesus and demonstrate that she and all the Gentiles are also worthy of the salvation that Jesus brings. Each one uses his/her strategy and persistence to obtain what they need.

By lining up this conversation this way, the sacred author wants his readers to focus, not on Jesus’ answers, but rather on the persistence of this woman and on how Jesus’ answers are used didactically to help her grow up in her faith. The first persistent action of this woman is when she approaches Jesus. Even though she knew very well that Jesus was a Jew, here she approaches him as her Lord and Son of David (see v. 22). When Jesus rejected her request for the first time, this woman demonstrated her persistence for the second time by doing homage to Jesus and begging him again for help (see v. 25). Her third persistent action that shows that she was not ready to give up is when she replies to the shocking answer of Jesus in which the woman and all Gentiles were identified as “dogs”. She says, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” (V. 27, NABRE). Jesus acknowledges that the faith of this woman is great, and he grants her what she requested: the healing of her daughter (see v. 28).

Focusing on the persistent actions of this woman, we learn that we too should persist to obtain the eternal salvation that we need no matter what negative things people may tell or remind us. Some of us may have had painful experiences or turbulent historical backgrounds in the past. All these cannot stop us from reaching our objective which is the salvation of our souls. The woman in our Gospel story knew very well the historical enmity between the Jews and the Canaanites. She was aware of what was being said against her people (the Gentiles). She also knew that Jesus was a Jew. But all these discouraging memories did not stop her from reaching out to Jesus and professing her faith to him. Let us overcome our bitter memories and what the people may say against us. This part of the Gospel calls us to break everything that constitutes a barrier and separates us from our Lord. Salvation is only through him, so we need to come to him and strengthen our personal relationship with him.

When we read vv. 1-21 that immediately precede our passage, we realize that Jesus left his town and withdrew to the Gentile region (where he met the woman of our story) because his own people (Pharisees and Scribes) took offense against him. They did not believe him. In contrast, a Canaanite and Gentile woman in our passage believes in him. Saint Paul had the same experience. He became the apostle of the Gentiles because his own people, the Israelites, rejected his message. In the second reading we just heard, St. Paul addresses the Christians in Rome. He identifies them as Gentiles or “outsiders”, and he considers himself their apostle. His message here is that he still hopes that his ministry to the Gentiles will make his fellow Israelites “jealous” and lead them (at least the remnants) to conversion (see Romans 11: 19-32). This teaches us that we should continue to hope for all the people of God to worship together without discrimination. Jesus has broken the barriers of division.  

The liturgy of this Sunday reminds us that Jesus always withdraws to where we are to meet us. Let us take advantage of all our encounters with Jesus especially in the celebrations of the Eucharist that we attend and demonstrate our faith in him as the Canaanite woman did. We should not let anything break up our personal relationship with our Lord. And we are called to always accept all people from different backgrounds to worship with us. Amen. 

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD

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