Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 17, 2008

St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati

(Based on Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15,29-32; Matthew 15:21-28)

“Oh woman, great is your faith! Let it be done as you wish!”

Today’s liturgy is unusual. It’s rare that all of the readings, and even the opening prayer of the community, point to the same theme. It’s all about boundaries and how we deal with them. Isaiah talks about ‘the foreigners’ or ‘the nations;’ Paul after his conversion is still preoccupied with what happens to the Jews; and we find Jesus in a disturbing exchange with a Gentile woman from up in the northwest near the territory of Tyre, the land of the Phoenicians.

It can be a fascinating thing to look over the whole long story of the Israelite people – which is our story, remember – and see how they dealt with the reality of the Gentiles, the nations; those who stood outside the covenant.

The Israelites knew that they had been specially blessed by the Lord. In some sense they were ‘chosen.’ They had a unique relationship to God. But what then of those other people? How do they fit into God’s plan? Can they share in the mercy of God, or are they forever ‘outside?’

Isaiah stands in the tradition of the prophets when he challenges any understanding of God’s favor which would make it the way of excluding others. In the passage we just read he tells them that the Lord wants the foreigners to share in the blessings of his dwelling: it will be a house of prayer for all people. But the passage has been cut. It leaves out some pointed verses that could be even more of a challenge for the people. Listen:


Let not the foreigner say,

when he would join himself to the Lord,

“The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” (56:3)

And he adds a further detail that must surely have upset them:


Nor let the eunuch say,

“See, I am a dry tree.”

For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who observe my sabbaths

and choose what pleases me

and hold fast to my covenant,

I will give, in my house

and within my walls, a monument and a name

Better than sons and daughters;

      an eternal, imperishable name will I give them. (56:4-5)

And he ends the prophecy by saying,


Others will I gather to him

besides those already gathered. (56: 8)

Isaiah and the rest of the prophets had to challenge the people of his day, and the same challenge is put before us in our day: it a sad aspect of our common sinfulness that we continually erect barriers and judge others unworthy of God’s love and acceptance. We do it because people look different from us, or talk a different language, or dress differently – or pray to a God we don’t understand.

There was a touching account in Saturday’s Times that brings the issue down to our day. It was an interview with a 91-year-old Japanese American man. He looked back over his life:


      He was born in Seattle of immigrant parents so he was an American citizen. He wanted to become a doctor but found out that he didn’t qualify because there was a quota limiting the number of Asian students. So he went back to work in his family’s store. Then came Pearl Harbor and his whole family was suddenly uprooted and transported to an internment camp in Idaho. And even though our country treated him so badly he joined our military. His unit, composed of Japanese-Americans, served with distinction from Italy all through France, suffering 800 casualties while liberating a unit of Texans that was trapped. When he applied to med school after the war the dean said he had never admitted Japs before the war and wouldn’t admit them now. In spite of that he eventually did get into med school and served as a physician for 40 years. He devoted himself to fighting for an apology and reparations from our government, saying that the money wasn’t all that important.

It’s a story that any African-American or any woman, for that matter – can easily relate to. The details may vary but it’s really the same sad tale of the ins and the outs. The interviewer ended his account by adding:


Citizenship was hardly enough to protect Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. and it did not keep thousands of American Muslims from being seized after 9/11. Helpless Latino immigrants have been harassed and brutalized in states from Arizona to Iowa and sent to languish in federal custody.

Any one of us can take the blessings we have received as gifts – whether as citizens or as Catholics – and turn them into entitlements which then allow us to stand in judgment of others. Just talk to gay men or women. And the message of the Gospel is that God’s grace and mercy are open to all.

But what are we to think then when we read about Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel? His words present a thorny challenge. This woman is surely someone a believing Jew wouldn’t want to be around.

The story reminds us of that other encounter of Jesus with a Gentile woman, the Samaritan woman by the well. He broke the taboo of the religious gatekeepers by simply sitting and talking with a woman – and a Samaritan at that. In that instance he took the initiative and declared his own need: “Could you give me a drink of water?” In today’s story it is the woman who is in need. Her daughter is gravely ill. And the gentle Jesus brings us up short by seeming to dismiss and denigrate her harshly. Did he really say that the Canaanites were dogs?

The account goes against all we know of Jesus. And indeed scripture scholars have broken their heads for centuries trying to put it together with our image of the compassionate Lord.

Of all the efforts to explain it perhaps one that might offer insight comes from a cultural pattern of the Middle East. People of that area get into exchanges of insults with one another, each one trying to say something more outlandish and insulting than the other guy. It’s really a language game that Jesus and the woman are engaged in, a sort of jousting contest that no one takes seriously.

Perhaps. We know from other passages that Jesus could get exasperated and frustrated: “How long do I have to put up with you?” He could groan from his heart at the disciples who just didn’t get it. And it had to be tiring to have people constantly in his face challenging him to give them a miracle. He often had to just get away by himself.

But maybe the most important thing to keep in mind is not what he says but what he does. He may be tired and burdened but he listens, he doesn’t drive her away. And in the face of her relentlessness he gives in and heals her daughter.

Perhaps the real point is that our God is not some impersonal deity but one who wants us to be in relationship. We are called to be really just who we are when we approach the Lord.

I think that too often we have been taught a form of spirituality that tells us that there are ‘appropriate ways’ of approaching God. They are fitting. We have to put on our best clothes and our ‘church face.’ Other behaviors are out of bounds, not ‘allowed.’ Perhaps we are being challenged to think about how we pray, how we relate to God.

We may need to remind ourselves of the way Moses dealt with God. When the Lord grew tired of the grumbling of the people, God offered an enticing deal to Moses. “I will do away with this people of yours and make a new people, and you will be their great champion.” But Moses didn’t take the bait but rather turned it around: “Oh no, these are your people, not mine. You led them out of Egypt. You promised you would be their God, and I am going to hold you to your promise.”

We have that famous story of St. Teresa of Lisieux, the one we call the ‘Little Flower.’ One day she got angry with God about something so she stormed into the chapel and said, “No wonder you have so few friends – you treat them so badly!”.

The Canaanite woman is in that same tradition. “You may treat me harshly; you may even insult me and my people – but I’m not going to be put down! I’m getting in your face until you listen!”

And what happens? The Lord blesses her for her faith. In its deepest reality faith is not a matter of doctrines and creeds, it’s a stance of trust in the person of Jesus. “I believe in you and won’t let you go until I receive your blessing” – much like Jacob wrestling all night with the Lord until he received the favor of God. Jacob, and Moses, and Teresa were given the great grace that St. Ignatius invites us to pray for in the Spiritual Exercises: the gift of familiarity with God.

So there are two different graces we need to pray for. Let’s pray for that kind of honesty and courage in our relationship with the Lord: the gift not to be afraid of being ourselves as we are, with no artificial ‘religious’ mask. But then let us also ask for the gift to extend that same openness to those who are still outside the judgmental boundaries we try to place on the boundless grace and generosity of our God.

The mercy of the Lord is upon all.