20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

In today’s readings we see an apparently harsh encounter turn into a lesson of humility and faith that points the way to the manner in which we, the People of God, are not just united in blood lineage, but by faith. The People of God were not called to embrace all nations overnight, but gradually.

In today’s First Reading Isaiah reminds us that the people of Israel, gathered into one nation and worshipping in the Temple on the “holy mountain” were just phase one of God’s desire to be the God of all nations. To Isaiah’s first listeners the foreigners had no chance of inheriting the blessings or the promises offered to the people of Israel by the Lord. Through the prophet the Lord reveals that through their fidelity and worship other peoples, “foreigners” would be drawn to the Lord and be considered worthy to come to him in worship together with the Israelites. Even in Our Lord’s earthly time non-Israelites had a place in the Temple if they feared the Lord, called the court of the Gentiles. They could observe, but not participate more closely in worship.

In today’s Second Reading Paul laments that, while the Gentiles (non-Israelites) had believed and accepted the Gospel, so many of his brother Israelites (Jews) had not, despite all the Lord had given them. Paul himself at first did his ministry among the Jews, and was frustrated by their rejection of the Gospel. Based upon those experiences and as he worked to spread the Gospel he realized that the Lord had called him to be the apostle sent to the Gentiles, a mission not carried out during Jesus’ earthly life. In Jesus’ time a smattering of Gentiles came to him, not the other way around. Paul tries to explain today that the Jews’ loss was the Gentiles’ gain. Israel had been called to first receive the Gospel, with mixed results, but the Gentiles did accept the Gospel, even though they’d not been prepared for it like the Jews had been.

In today’s Gospel on face value it seems Our Lord is being very harsh with the Canaanite woman, but he is actually showing what an expert reader of hearts he is. There was bad blood between the Israelites and the Canaanites: the first generation of Israelites were so scared of them that they didn’t enter the Promised Land and continued to journey in the desert for forty more years.

Jesus is not just being driven by the prejudices of his time: when the Centurion asked him for help, another pagan, he didn’t hesitate (see Matthew 8:5–13). Jesus during his earthly ministry concentrated on the Jewish people; later his Apostles and disciples would bring the Gospel beyond the confines of Judaism, as is narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. Therefore the conversation with the Canaanite woman is very similar to the Wedding Feast at Cana when Mary asked him to do something about the wine situation and he said, “my hour has not yet come” (see John 2:4).

The Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel shows a lot of courage in the quest to free her daughter from being afflicted by a demon. Our Lord was a Jew, but also a miracle worker, so she decided to try. In her first attempt to greet Our Lord she even used the Messianic title, “Son of David”: for the people of the time it was not clear that the Messiah would be a good thing for anyone who was not a Jew. Perhaps she was trying to butter him up a little. Our Lord responds as she probably expected: the cold shoulder. However, we know Our Lord can read hearts, so this was not a simple brush off; something more profound was going on.

When the disciples pressed him regarding the matter, he told them it was not yet time for his ministry to go beyond the children of Israel. Israel had a special role in the plan of salvation and Our Lord was sent to attend to them; the rest would be attended to later. In a sense, the Canaanite woman was trying to skip the line. When Our Lord rebuffs her again she is not shy about acknowledging that she is not entitled to what she is requesting.

Sometimes we forget that Our Lord doesn’t have to give us anything. Yet Our Lord rewards her faith and humility in the end. Our Lord is having this conversation in front of all his disciples so that they could see that even someone who’d not been prepared to believe could believe. Like his response to Mary in the Wedding Feast at Cana, here he was inviting the Canaanite woman to offer something more: greater faith and humility. The Canaanite woman rose to the occasion and Jesus congratulated her on her faith and healed her daughter, not only to her benefit but to that of the disciples as well.

Our Lord rebuffed the Canaanite woman twice. How many of us would have stomped off fuming after being treated that way? She is not shy about acknowledging that she is not entitled to what she is requesting, and she is rewarded in the end for her faith and humility. Sometimes we forget that Our Lord doesn’t have to give us anything. He has given us everything we need, but not always what we might have wanted. Didn’t our parent do the same many times, especially in those moments when we were immature and selfish about what we wanted? Let’s ask Our Lord for what we need, thankful that he’ll consider our petition and humble enough to recognize that we aren’t entitled to it.

Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6–7; Psalm 67:2–3, 5–6, 8; Romans 11:13–15, 29–32; Matthew 15:21–28.