August 18, 2023

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

The Sunday Readings

Msgr. Owen CampionThe third section of the Book of Isaiah provides the first reading for Mass this weekend.

Understanding this part of Isaiah requires some knowledge of the cultural context of the time in which it was written. 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 composed the political structures of the Holy Land after Solomon’s death. These brutal invasions extinguished Hebrew independence.

Untold numbers of Jews died in the process. Others were 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, not abundance, 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.  Those they identified as “foreigners” were in many places, and they were foreign in several respects (Is 56:3).

Apparently from this reading, some of these foreigners embraced the ancient Hebrew religion. They were accepted, but were also expected 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 people not of Jewish birth or religion. His efforts in this regard, and surely similar efforts by his disciples and others, resulted in the fact that, by the time of the last third of the first century, the major portion of the Christian population was arguably 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 Jews, including Paul, the Blessed Virgin and the other Apostles.)

Nonetheless, Paul 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 in which Gentiles may have been a majority of the population. Not surprisingly, the Lord encounters a Canaanite woman—a Gentile. She asks the Lord to cast a demon out of her daughter.

Matthew’s use of this term to describe the woman underscores that she is an outsider. “Canaanite” figures prominently in the Old Testament to indicate people 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 God’s mercy for her daughter.  Jesus responds in mercy to her statement of faith.

The reading closes by establishing the common denominator among all humans. All humans sin. All need God’s mercy. Jesus mercifully bestows it.


Note the references in these readings to ethnicity and cultural conventions. In hearing this Gospel passage, note the fact that the person speaking to Jesus was a woman. Additionally, she was not a Jew, not of God’s chosen people.

Finally, in the etiquette of the time, a woman’s approach to a male stranger was unacceptable. She would have been regarded at best as brazen.

Did sin set her apart? Perhaps. Still, she went to Jesus. She knew her true needs.  She knew that she needed God’s mercy. He was her hope. Generously, the Lord provided it.

Jesus reaches out to all, appeals to all, invites all, as magnificently shown in the recent World Youth Day in Lisbon. Youth, of every nationality, went to Portugal, happily declaring their faith. The Lord awaited them in and through the Church. †

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