Twentieth 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. Life was not good. For the Jews it 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. 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 religiously pluralistic than it had been centuries earlier. Jews, at the time this section of Isaiah was written, lived amid religious and ethnic diversity. “Foreigners” were in many places. They were pagans and idolaters, insulting the One God of Israel.
Apparently, however, assumed from this reading, some of these “foreigners” embraced the ancient Hebrew religion. They were accepted, but they were expected, of course, by the prophets and people, to observe the Hebrew religion.
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, 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 the Blessed Virgin, Paul and the other Apostles.
Paul, despite this interest in Gentiles, in this letter recommitted himself to evangelizing the Jews, since God promised salvation to the Jews, and Paul, as an Apostle, was God’s agent.
St. Matthew’s Gospel furnishes the last reading. In this story, Jesus was in an area populated by as many Gentiles as Jews, if not more by Gentiles than Jews. Not surprisingly, the Lord encountered a “Canaanite” woman. The Evangelist’s use of this term to describe the woman underscored 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 said that the Messiah’s mission was to bring salvation to God’s Chosen People. The woman persisted, believing in Jesus. She wanted and needed God’s mercy. Jesus responded to her need.
The reading closes by establishing the common denominator among all humans. All humans sin, and so all require God’s mercy.
We cannot overplay the presumptions in these readings that are created by ethnicity and culture. Another critical element within society at the time was the fact that the Canaanite woman was female. In the ways of the time, any woman’s approach to a male stranger was extraordinary.
Did sin set her apart? Perhaps. Regardless, she was indeed set apart: a woman, and a foreigner at that.
She was doubly, profoundly excluded. Yet she went to Jesus, aware of her true needs. She realized that she needed God’s mercy. She devoutly believed that Jesus bore this mercy. He willingly dispensed it. He was the “son of David,” the voice of God and the bearer of God’s redemption.
Times have not changed. We have our deep spiritual needs. Only Jesus can meet these needs with hope, peace and love. He loves us all.
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