August 15, 2014

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Msgr. Owen F. Campion

The Sunday Readings

Msgr. Owen CampionThe third section of the Book of Isaiah provides this weekend’s Mass with its first reading.

Understanding this part of Isaiah requires some knowledge of the cultural context of the time. 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 forever were defeated and extinguished.

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 became 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. As God’s Chosen People, the Jews were expected, certainly by the prophets and because of their own covenant with God, to observe all required by the Hebrew religion. But with the presence of pagans, the old support of bonding and commonality were gone.

St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans provides the second reading. Throughout Christian history, the great Apostle 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, meant that by the last third of the first century, a significant portion of the Christian population was not Jewish in origin.

It cannot be forgotten that Christianity sprang from Judaism, was built upon Judaic themes and included many, many Jews, including Paul, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the other Apostles. The “Apostle to the Gentiles,” Paul in this letter, nevertheless, recommitted himself to evangelizing the Jews. Why? Because God promised salvation to the Jews, and Paul, as an Apostle, is an agent of God.

St. Matthew’s Gospel furnishes the last reading. In it, Jesus was in an area populated by as many Gentiles as Jews, if not by more Gentiles than Jews. Not surprisingly, the Lord met a “Canaanite” woman. She was not a Jew, but an outsider to the Hebrew people. “Canaanite” figures prominently in the Old Testament to indicate persons not of the Chosen People, and even persons of great sin.

Jesus recalled that the mission of the Messiah was to bring salvation to God’s people. The woman persisted. She believed in Jesus, and knew she wanted and needed God’s mercy for herself and her daughter that was tormented by a demon. Jesus responded to this need.

The reading makes two points. First, this woman, of pagan background and therefore in Jewish eyes woefully inadequate, expressed faith. Secondly, Jesus acknowledged and accepted her faith, her inadequacies set aside.

Reflection

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, any woman’s approach to a male stranger was totally unacceptable. She was doubly excluded.

Yet, she went to Jesus. Why? She knew her true needs and those of her daughter. Three times, she pleaded for help for her. Jesus reaffirmed God’s pledge to the people of Israel, but also recognized the woman’s faith. Compassionately, Jesus assured her that her faith had brought healing to her daughter.

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, if we, are faithful, never halting in faith, salvation will come. †

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