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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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