20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The third section of the Book of Isaiah provides this weekend’s liturgy with its first reading.
Understanding this part of Isaiah requires some knowledge of the cultural context of the time. This was the context. Life for the Jews had changed very much from what it was when David or Solomon was king.
Neighboring states had swept into and across the two Hebrew kingdoms that had come to compose the political structures of the Holy Land. The two kingdoms were defeated and extinguished forever.
Untold numbers of Jews had been killed or had died in the process. Others had been taken to Babylon, the capital of the great Babylonian empire.
At last, Babylonia itself was subdued. The descendants of the first Jews taken to Babylon returned home, but they easily were disillusioned.
Living was much more pluralistic than it had been centuries earlier. The Jews — at the time this section of Isaiah was written — indeed lived amid religious and ethnic diversity. So “foreigners” were in many places, and they were “foreign” in several important respects.
Apparently from this reading, some of these “foreigners” embraced the ancient Hebrew religion. They were accepted, but they were expected -— actually by the prophets and, therefore, by God — to observe all that the Hebrew religion required. Others remained foreign — or pagan.
Paul’s Epistle to the Romans provides the second reading. Throughout Christian history, the great Apostle, St. Paul, has been remembered especially for his outreach to Gentiles — to persons not of Jewish birth or religion. His efforts in this regard, and surely similar efforts by his disciples and by others, resulted in the fact that by the time of the last third of the first century, a significant portion of the Christian population was not Jewish in origin. (Although, it cannot be forgotten that Christianity sprang from Judaism, was built upon Judaic themes and contained within its ranks many, many Jews, including Paul, the Blessed Virgin and the other Apostles.)
True to his title as “Apostle to the Gentiles,” Paul in this letter recommits himself to evangelizing the Jews. Why? Because God promised salvation to the Jews, and as an Apostle, Paul is the agent of God.
St. Matthew’s Gospel furnishes the last reading. In this story, Jesus is in an area populated by as many Gentiles as Jews, if not more Gentiles than Jews. Not surprisingly, the Lord encounters a “Canaanite” woman, a term describing her as an outsider. “Canaanite” figures prominently in the Old Testament to indicate persons not of the revealed religion and even persons of great sin.
Jesus recalls the mission of the Messiah to bring salvation to God’s people. The woman persists. She believes in Jesus. She wants and needs God’s mercy. Jesus responds to this need.
The reading makes two points. First, this woman, of pagan background and therefore in Jewish eyes woefully inadequate, expresses faith. Secondly, Jesus acknowledges and accepts her faith, with her inadequacies set aside.
In the Gospel setting, the Canaanite woman was not a Jew and also was out of bounds by virtue of her feminine gender. In the culture of the time, a woman’s approach to a male stranger was revolutionary. So, she was doubly excluded.
Yet, she went to Jesus. Why? She admitted her true needs. Jesus reaffirmed God’s pledge to the people of Israel, but also realized that the woman needed God’s mercy. Three times she pleaded for salvation. Jesus assures her that her faith will bring her salvation.
God’s law is everlasting, as was the divine promise to the Chosen People. But, God’s love has no bounds.
For those who are Canaanites not by ethnicity, but by their sins, hope lives — realistic hope. If they are faithful, never halting in faith, they will be rewarded.
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