Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading: Matthew 15:21-28
The third section of the Book of Isaiah provides this weekend’s first reading.
Understanding this part of Isaiah requires some knowledge of the cultural context of the time. It was not good. Life for the Jews had changed very much from what it was when David or Solomon was king: Long-gone were the prosperity, peace and tranquility known under these kings. Invading neighboring states had swept into and across the two Hebrew kingdoms that had come to compose the political structures of the Holy Land after Solomon’s death. These invasions extinguished Hebrew independence. Untold numbers of Jews died in the process and others had been taken to Babylon, the capital of the great Babylonian empire.
At last, Babylonia itself was overtaken. The descendants of the first Jews taken to Babylon returned home. But, desolation and hopelessness awaited them.
Living was much more pluralistic than it had been centuries earlier. The Jews at the time this section of Isaiah was written lived amid religious and ethnic diversity. “Foreigners” were in many places, and they were “foreign” in several respects.
Apparently, according to 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.
St. 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.D., arguably the major 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.)
Paul, nevertheless, in this letter re-committed himself to evangelizing the Jews. Why? Because God promised salvation to the Jews, and Paul, as an Apostle, was 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 by Gentiles than Jews. Not surprisingly, the Lord encounters a “Canaanite” woman. The evangelist’s use of this term to describe the woman underscores that she is an outsider. “Canaanite” figures prominently in the Old Testament to indicate persons not of the revealed religion, and even persons of great sin.
Jesus says that the Messiah’s mission is 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 closes by establishing the common denominator among all humans. It is that all humans sin, and so all need God’s mercy.
We cannot overplay the references in these readings to ethnicity. Another element of separation within society at the time was the fact that the Canaanite woman was female. In the culture of the time, a woman’s approach to a male stranger was extraordinary.
Did sin set her apart? Perhaps. Regardless, she was set apart. She was a woman, and a foreigner at that.
She was doubly excluded. Yet, she went to Jesus. She knew her true needs. She knew that she needed God’s mercy, and she devoutly believed that Jesus bore this mercy. He could dispense it. He was the “son of David,” the voice of God and the agent of God’s redemption.
Times have not changed. We have our deep spiritual needs. Only Jesus can meet these needs with hope and peace. He loves us all.
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