Who is God for? EVERYONE! The answer is almost automatic for modern day Catholics… one barely even needs to think about it to know this is true, yet our scriptures for this 20th week of Ordinary Time remind us that this understanding was not always so obvious nor accepted.
The Word for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Psalm: 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
We open with a reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah… Trito-Isaiah or 3rd Isaiah to be more precise, authored during the post-Exile period. This week’s passage has the prophet telling us that God will accept the sacrifices of all peoples… that is, people who are not of Israel. The God of Israel is telling his people that he’s not just the God for them, but for all others who follow his commands. The foreigner, the Gentile, also have an open invitation to join in the Covenant. There are two ways to look at this passage. On one side we see this a generous offering by a generous God… A God who wants to extend himself to all his creation. The other side of this coin, however, is one of betrayal. In the eyes of many Israelites, this could almost be seen as God reneging on his covenant… a covenant he made with Israel… not anyone else.
The idea wasn’t a new one… having been revealed not only to Isaiah but earlier prophets as well… but that didn’t make the idea any less controversial with the people of Israel. One can almost hear them crying out, “he’s our God… not yours… you can’t have him.” Yet in a post-Exile world… and to our own modern ears, this sounds much like the ravings of a toddler. In a world in which a Gentile King, Cyrus, is called “great” by the people of Israel for his defeat of the Babylonians and repatriating them back to the land of Israel, the world is becoming a much smaller, inclusive, and spread-out kind of place. As the Assyrian and Greek empires spread, so do the people, including the people of Israel. The God of Israel is becoming known, but Israel herself isn’t always ready or willing to share, and not without good cause. Yet scripture is very clear on this issue, as our Psalm sings “O God, let all the nations praise you.” God may have chosen the Israelites as his people, but it’s clear that invitation is open to everyone who believes.
Our Gospel from Matthew reminds us of this same conflict among Jesus himself and his disciples. While traveling in the region of Tyre and Sidon (along the coast of modern day Lebanon), a Canaanite woman cries “have pity on my, Lord, Son of David,” looking to Jesus to drive out the demon from her daughter. At first, Jesus is reluctant, claiming that he was sent only to save the children of Israel, not anyone else. The woman, however, is both persistent and persuasive. Jesus sees her faith and heals her daughter. At first reading, Jesus sounds like a bigot… all but calling the Canaanite woman a “dog” and being dismissive of her. Upon deeper reflection, however, it’s easy to see (as is so much the case) that Jesus’ actions speak louder than his words. First, we need to look at where Jesus is… As the gospel states, he’s traveling through Tyre and Sidon… areas much farther North than even Samaria…. well past the Judean border. Yet this is where Jesus has chosen to spread his gospel message. Jesus, a noted Jewish prophet, is preaching in an area populated mostly by Gentiles. The encounter with the Canaanite woman wasn’t a surprise… one could even say it was expected. Matthew is using this encounter to show his audience (a primarily Jewish audience) that if Jesus’ heart can be changed, so can theirs (and ours).
Our second reading continues our journey through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. This week’s passage reflects the same sentiments as our other readings: that God’s mercy is for all. Paul is addressing a largely Gentile audience, calling himself the apostle to the Gentiles, while at the same time admitting that he has taken on this mission to “make my race jealous.” Paul, that devout Jew and former persecutor of Christians has become the voice that rallies the cause of Christ for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. It is Paul’s teaching, supported by the teachings of Isaiah and many more prophets that have us singing God’s mercy and praise to all the nations. Let us all join the chorus!