Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dogged Determination

This article appears in the Cycle A Sunday Resources feature series. View the full series.

Experts in spirituality, at least in the mainstream Catholic tradition, will tell us that we don’t pray to change God’s mind but to grow in relationship with God and learn how to conform ourselves to God’s will. That means we have to be clever in the way we interpret what Jesus taught about prayer in his examples of the friend who comes in the middle of the night and the widow and the unjust judge. That latter parable from Luke 18 sounds strangely like today’s Gospel in which an unrelenting mother badgers a healing from the reluctant Jesus.

What are we to make of this incident? It took at least three tries for a desperate mom to get Jesus to help her daughter! It seems uncharacteristic for Jesus to ignore her. With his back to her, he even told his disciples that her need was not part of his job description! Why did Mark and Matthew retell this story? Maybe it’s not about healing as much as it is about boundaries and learning to be open to the new possibilities God places in our path.

If we take the story as Matthew set it up, Jesus had just criticized the Pharisees for their hypocritical and egotistical use of the law; then, he started off toward the Jewish-pagan border area. At the same time, a Canaanite woman, a representative of Israel’s ancient enemies, was headed from her turf toward the same dividing line. We have no idea what was on Jesus’ mind, but the only thing she seemed able to think about was getting help for her demon-possessed daughter.

The woman must have been seeking Jesus. Although she was a foreigner, she was prepared to call him by the honorific titles best suited to bring him round to her cause. Unfortunately, he only saw and heard her through the preconceptions that convinced him that his vocation was limited to Israel. When she made it impossible for him to ignore her, he dissed her dramatically, but she was more than equal to the challenge. If he was going to call her and her people dogs, she would remind him that they never let pass a chance to get the scraps. Was she suggesting that the dogs pay more attention to the food than those who have a place at the table?

With that she got his full attention. He must have laughed — perhaps even at himself as she shook him out of his inhibitions. He had been paying attention to boundaries, to nationalities and religious restrictions, while she concentrated her whole being on the plight of her child. She hounded him into remembering the bigger picture.

It’s a little surprising that Matthew and Mark preserved a story that shows Jesus in such a poor light. We might say that. Then again, we could admit that it shows Jesus as capable of growing and changing his perspective. This incident must have been a thorough shock to the disciples. This woman who had no right to make a claim on Jesus actually got him to reconsider his position, to accept an alternative viewpoint, and to do something he had not been prepared to do. He was being just as open as he demanded that others be! This story adds credence to his Gethsemane prayer, showing him to be a real human being who matured and learned, who wanted to accept God’s will even when it contradicted his own assumptions, preferences or desires.

We can’t ignore the fact that in the four Gospels the only times we see Jesus obviously change his mind come in response to requests by women: from this woman and from his mother during the wedding celebration at Cana. Perhaps the Gospel writers recorded this one because it showed just how true Jesus was to his option for the marginalized — even to the point of allowing women to teach him. Who’s to say that this experience didn’t give him the fodder for the story of the good Samaritan, the one who took care of an enemy in need?

All three of today’s readings call us to move beyond our preconceptions and prejudices. Isaiah says that if Israel is true to her vocation, unexpected people will come and even minister in the temple. Paul grapples with the grace of the Gospel’s unexpected attractiveness to pagans and its rejection by God’s people. Jesus learns that when his vision needs broadening, God will send the most unexpected, even disrespected teachers.

Whether we are learning with Jesus or challenging boundaries with the Canaanite woman, the Gospel calls us to question what are often considered legitimate limitations. As individuals and as church, we must become attentive to the myriad of people and events God puts in our path in hope of changing our minds.

ISAIAH 56:1, 6-7

This reading speaks of what is “right” and “just,” two terms we use in the dialogue of the preface of each eucharistic prayer, replacing the response: “It is right to give God thanks and praise.” There is a world of shared meaning between the terms. Together, they describe how a community lives the covenant; individually, the two terms give a particular slant to how that is done.

Technically, being just is essentially a matter of observing the commandments. This is not the same as obeying the law of the land — a requirement that binds all citizens at a primitive stage of moral maturity by exacting a price when one disobeys. We might describe the Hebrew sense of obedience as appreciative rather than legalistic. Obedience is a response to God’s loving outreach. One obeys the commandments because they come from God’s love, because they are a way to live in that love. We may have been taught about some sort of “blind obedience,” the obligation to obey simply because the commandments were made with authority.  A justice- oriented concept of obedience reveals the inverse. Rather than being blind, obedience comes from a clarity of vision, participation, and loving the one from whom the command comes. Being “just” is obedience to a relationship of love.

The word right in this reading has the same root as the word translated as salvation in the next line. It has to do with deliverance, with making things become as they should be. Speaking of God, it refers to faithfulness and mercy. Righteousness might be conceived of as the ongoing activity that keeps the covenant alive and growing. Thus, the opening part of today’s reading is a call to live in faithfulness to the covenant, both in the sense of obeying the commandments, and in active efforts to make the world what God intended it to be.

From there, the reading goes on to reflect on the breadth of God’s plan. There’s the underlying awareness that Israel is God’s chosen people. Israel is to be such a light that the nations will be attracted to God by her way of life. Here we run into a challenge of righteousness as bigness of heart. The prophet says that the foreigners who join themselves to God, the aliens who do what is right and just, will be counted as if they were part of the chosen people. They may even offer sacrifices like priests! This is a terrible challenge to people who are proud of their bloodline, the exclusive national or ethnic heritage they think makes them special through no effort or merit of their own.

The reading begins with the call to do what is right and just, to live as a community grateful for God’s love and blessings. Living justly, obeying the commandments as a loving response to God, is one level. The call to do what is right deepens the community’s awareness that what they have received is given for the world, not just for themselves. The reading tells them the only way to truly be God’s people is to be a people who welcome the full participation of all who love God.

ROMANS 11:13-15, 29-32

This selection from Romans concludes Paul’s reflection on the heart-rending, mind-bending question of where God’s providence fits into the fact that the chosen people have not accepted Christ while Gentiles have.

This reading clearly reminds us that Paul wasn’t a Catholic. He was a Jew who believed with all his heart, soul and mind that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ of God. He also believed that since the time of Abraham the Jews had been God’s chosen people and that God would never abandon them. Paul was trying to reconcile the seemingly incompatible forces of his love for his own people, his belief in the God of Abraham and Jesus, and his mission to the Gentiles.

This section of Romans makes us privy to Paul’s own process of coming to understand and accept that faith is a gift. One can almost feel the passion that tore Paul apart as he declared, “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” In the end, all he could do was speculate that if the Jews’ rejection of Jesus had led to the mission to the Gentiles, God would bring even greater blessings to the world through their acceptance. Paul was painfully coming to understand what God had proclaimed through Isaiah: “My ways are not your ways.” Ultimately, he had to accept the reality that God’s grace moves in mysterious ways.

Today, many of us feel the same kind of pain Paul felt. It tears us apart that so many of the baptized have left the practice of faith, that our loved ones do not share our faith, hope and vision. What does Paul’s struggle tell us? First, with Paul we believe that God’s call and God’s desire to draw all into one are invincible. God will not give up. Secondly, we seek God’s mysterious will in all of this. We must ask ourselves serious questions. If God’s grace isn’t doing what we think it ought, what are we called to do? Where is God leading us? To whom and how are we called to give witness?

The last line we hear today from Paul restates the mystery of salvation: At all times, in all ways, God is merciful. God has placed this world in our hands, but we are not saviors, only witnesses called to know and love God as we move along the way.

MATTHEW 15:21-28

Today’s Gospel depicts Jesus on his way toward the border between Jewish and pagan territory. As he moves one way, a Canaanite woman is coming from her side of the line toward Jewish land. Where they meet is the crux of the story.

In terms of cultural boundaries, the woman is the one who leads in crossing over. When she appeals to Jesus for help, she first refers to him as Lord, addressing him like a disciple. Then she astutely calls him “Son of David,” a Jewish title perfectly designed to further her cause. As a kingly son of David, he was responsible for the care of widows, orphans and foreigners. This woman and her daughter might have qualified on all three counts: There is no mention of her husband and she is surely an outsider to Judaism.

In spite of all of that, Jesus exhibited a decidedly unchristlike attitude and refused to acknowledge that she had a claim on him. He simply ignored her.

What more could the woman have done? Jesus was the exorcist par excellence, the vanquisher of demons, and yet, he wasn’t even tempted to accept this woman’s plea to free her daughter from torment. When the disciples suggested that he dismiss her, he still refused to acknowledge her presence and replied to them that he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel.

But a reluctant healer is no match for a desperate mother. Matthew depicts how she moved from the sidelines to put herself directly in Jesus’ path. Even if she had to force him to trip over her, she was going to command his attention. Instead of begging for mercy, she asks for his help. Her request for mercy was a plea for empathy, an imitation of Israel’s prayer which asks God to be emotionally involved in the plight of the one praying. In asking for help, she’s moved out of the realm of appealing to sympathy; she only asks for action: “No matter why you do it, please, just do it!”

Jesus replies with the explanation that his mission is directed to his own people, their enemies count no more than dogs. Read literally, Jesus has gone from ignoring to insulting her, which is actually an advance. He now recognizes her and treats her the same way he had just treated the Pharisees he had called hypocrites. She immediately seizes the opening he let slip. “Ah, but look at the children and their masters! Are they taking advantage of the banquet? No! They’re letting it fall, uneaten. Let me get some of what they’re not taking!”

 Her retort might as well be as direct as saying, “They don’t pay attention to you, you don’t pay attention to me. Why not give to those who desire what you offer? I don’t mind the left-overs, and from what I can see, you’ve got more than enough waiting for the taking!”

In the end, she got him. She got not only his help, but his admiration: “O woman, great is your faith!” Her recognition of his power went beyond the barriers of ethnicity and religion. She had started out with the vocabulary of Jewish faith, and she backed it up with belief so insistent that he too came to believe that he could help her.

Planning: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

By: Lawrence Mick

Anyone who hears today’s readings in our worldwide political context and does not think about the great needs of refugees and immigrants is either oblivious to current events or living with the false assumption that the word of God does not apply to social and political issues. The first reading today speaks of foreigners coming to Jerusalem so that the Temple will be “a house of prayer for all peoples.” The psalm prays: “O God, let all the nations praise you!” In the second reading, Paul speaks to the Gentile Christians about the Jews and his concern for them, ending by noting that God wishes to “have mercy upon all.” In the Gospel, Jesus grants the Canaanite woman’s request even though he first insists that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

These texts remind us that our God loves and is concerned about all people, and that we are a church composed of people from all across the globe. There is no room in a true Christian spirituality for a “me first” or “my country first” approach to life. In recent years we have seen a growing number of people who want to turn inward and away from the needs of others. Fear leads us to try to exclude anyone who is different — in race, country of origin, sexual orientation, language or culture. Fear makes us turn inward and leads us to irrational decisions. Consider the effort and money spent in the United States to guard against foreign terrorists when more acts of terror are committed by native citizens. Consider our extreme reactions when a few (or even dozens) of people are killed by a terrorist, while we are unconcerned about the tens of thousands killed by guns every year or the tens of thousands killed in auto accidents. Are lives taken by a terrorist more important than all those other lives?

Perhaps saddest is the fact that fear makes us see others as threats rather than as brothers and sisters, children of God whom God loves. The impulse to divide and separate people comes not from the Divine. That’s why Pope Francis said: “A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian”(Press Conference, Flight from Juarez, Mexico to Rome,   Italy,  Feb. 18, 2016).

No doubt you have parishioners who disagree with Francis and with the Gospel. Does that mean we should not address these moral questions? Do we stop preaching on other moral issues because some may disagree? Planners and preachers might need to discuss and discern how best to speak about topics that many consider political rather than moral, but we cannot wash our hands of these concerns and maintain a cowardly silence.

Prayers: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

By: Joan DeMerchant


Today’s readings could not be more timely, given the political discourse regarding refugees and all those who are different from us — whether culturally, racially, economically, religiously or in any other way. In Scripture, we hear these questions: Who are worthy to be God’s people? Who are worthy to hear the good news? The answers are that Israel is open to all; and the disciples are to be open to all. All are worthy in God’s sight. The message for us could not be clearer.

Penitential Act

  • Lord Jesus, you were approached for healing by an outsider: Lord, have mercy.
  • Christ Jesus, you had compassion on her, despite the pleas of others: Christ, have mercy.
  • Lord Jesus, you call on us to have compassion on others: Lord, have mercy.

Prayer of the Faithful

Presider  Let us pray for our own needs and those of others, no matter who they are.

Minister  For the church, that we may be a people open to all and rejecting none ... we pray,

  • For policies in our country that reflect openness to those in need ... we pray,
  • For those who show support and compassion to others at great personal or political cost ... we pray,
  • For those whose hearts and minds are closed to people they deem different or unworthy ... we pray,
  • For those who are afraid to ask for help because they are considered different ... we pray,
  • For teachers, students and parents of those beginning a new academic year ... we pray,
  • For those returning to schools that are substandard; and for those who are anxious about school ... we pray,
  • For all in this community who are sick and grieving; and for those who have died ... (names) ... we pray,

Presider Great and inclusive God, you tell us that you are a God for all people. Help us to believe that this includes not only us, but also those for whom we have little regard. Empower us to stand with those considered unworthy, no matter what the cost may be. We pray in the name of Jesus, whose embrace was wide and deep. Amen.

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