20 Ordinary Time
20th Sunday of the Year,
The timeliness of today's scripture readings is all the more striking given that they were not hastily arranged in the past couple of years when immigration and the presence of "foreigners" in the U.S. have been a lively political concern, but rather they have stood together as readings for nearly half a century since the Lectionary was revised in 1969. The issue of the rights of foreigners or migrants within a nation was a controversial one in biblical times and so it is no surprise that it is still controversial today.
The first reading comes from the opening of what us often called "third Isaiah", representing the third major section of that lengthy prophetic book. In the light of the return from the Babylonian exile, the prophet rejoices in his own salvation and ability to freely worship the Lord at long last, and desires that this joy be shared by all who believe in the Lord. This may seem like a natural wish but it is actually an expression of a deep and mature understanding of the relationship between God and man, and Israel's place in that relationship.
Speaking the word of the Lord Isaiah says: "The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord" I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples? (Isa 56:1, 7).
To feel the impact of these verses we must recall that the Temple in Jerusalem was not always considered a house of prayer for all nations, nor even for all Israelites. At times in the history of Israel those who were physically afflicted in various ways were not allowed into the Temple (see 2 Sam 5:8 and Matt 21:14), nor were foreigners admitted beyond the "outer court".
Women were not allowed full access to the Temple either but they could enter the outer court where the Temple treasury was located (see Mark 12:41-44).
With this picture in mind the power of Isaiah's words becomes clear: all peoples who truly sought the Lord and abided by his covenant could freely worship in the Temple, and more importantly could be counted among those redeemed by God. The gentile nations were thus grafted onto the ancient rootstock of Israel and the heritage of salvation that was first made known through Israel was opened to all who believed and remained faithful to the Lord. For his part the Psalmist affirms this when he cries out in today's responsorial: "O God, let all the nations praise you!? (Ps 67:2).
Saint Paul adds his voice to the chorus by reminding his followers that while the people of Israel had not all received Jesus as Lord, it was through them that the gates of redemption were opened to the world, and on account of this God would redeem them in his own good time and manner, for as we hear in the second reading "the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable? (Rom 11:29).
The Gospel provides a final note to this brief reflection on the possibility of salvation for people of all nations. There Jesus admires the faith of the Canaanite woman, who was not only a foreigner but was from a nation that was among Israel's bitterest traditional enemies. The Lord tested her sharply before commending her for her belief in him: "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish? (Matt 15:28).
The Canaanite woman saw her daughter healed that day: may we ask our Lord to heal us of any trace of a selfish mind or a cold heart, and rejoice in the company of the Lord together with all his faithful ones friend and foreigner alike.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time,
Matthew 15: 21-28
While Jesus is in the Gentile region of Tyre and Siden, a Canaanite woman approaches and cries out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon." Jesus' disciples ask him to send her away for she keeps crying out after them, "Lord, help me." Jesus replies with the popular saying that it is not right to take the food of the children (Israelites) and throw it to the dogs (Gentiles). The woman replies that even dogs eat scraps that fall from the table of their masters. Jesus then says to her, "O woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish." The woman's daughter was healed at that very moment.
At first glance one would not recognize the sayings of Jesus in this gospel passage as good news there is the allusion to his own suffering and death, as well as his statement about bringing division, not peace. People in bondage to any kind of slavery or oppression, however, would have no trouble understanding exactly what Jesus is talking about. They would know that what they were hearing was good news.
When someone like Martin Luther King appears in a situation where people are hopelessly caught in oppression, the immediate consequence is not peace, but division?even in households and families.
An oppressive system does not fix itself of its own accord. It takes a strong person of compassion not merely to lament injustice, but to risk life itself to proclaim liberation from oppression and hope of a new way of living. The very presence of such a person provokes a crisis whereby everyone involved in the system must choose either actively to hope for the new reality or to resist its coming.
Jesus understood that he had been sent to a fallen world in bondage a humanity hopelessly mired in false value-systems of covetousness, violence, and idolatry. This was not merely some local situation of economic oppression imposed by a selfish landowner.
Jesus was engaged in a cosmic struggle against the realm of Satan in order to restore God's kingdom to people long held in slavery to demonic powers. Paul, particularly in his Letter to the Romans, speaks of the universality of the bondage. All humanity lives under the power of sin. And even with the most well-intentioned effort, those in slavery?Jews and Gentiles alike?are not able to live according to God's will.
Jesus symbolically shows that he has entered the realm of Satan with God's power to liberate humanity from bondage by casting out demons. He shows that people will be able to use their freedom to live in a new way by curing people paralyzed to inaction by illness. Jesus in his own life shows what it means to be completely free from the false value-systems of Satan's reign, and to live in submission to God's reign not as to a powerful king, but to a loving father.
As we hear the words of Jesus about the meaning of his life at our Eucharistic liturgy, we realize that they are living words spoken to us. Jesus means to provoke a crisis of decision in us even though it might disturb the peace and cause division. If we hear his words in faith, we will take a close look at the system of values whereby in practice we live our own lives. Though professing membership in the Church, am I still in bondage to the false value-systems of a fallen world? How do I define the meaning of my life? How do I define the meaning of success?
Jesus, now Risen Lord, is present among us not only to provoke a crisis of decision, but to enable us to actualize the reality of God's reign in ourselves. In that reality, although it may cost us something, we too can enter situations of oppression with the compassion and healing power of Jesus. With God's grace, we too can sometimes be instruments of liberation and hope for people who are held in bondage.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.