Scripture notes – 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – 20th August 2023

The readings are available online here.

Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
This selection comes from the third part of the book which collected other prophets while keeping the title of the first Isaiah. The time is after the return from the exile in Babylon, when the hopes for an easily restored kingdom were fading. It is uncertain whether we are dealing with one prophet (‘Third Isaiah’) or several different ones. The emphasis of this particular writer is often on keeping the Law and acting righteously, as in the first part of today’s reading. The prophet retains the hope expressed by the earlier Second Isaiah that Gentiles will be brought to God. In his time, the prophet could only think of this as the non-Jews coming to live by the Law, and hence the mention of them offering their sacrifices in the temple.

The words ‘my house will be called a house of prayer’ are spoken by Jesus when he drives the money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:13, Luke 19:46).

Psalm 66/67:2-3, 5-6, 8
The psalm responses have the same theme of ‘all nations’ rejoicing in God’s rule.

Romans 11:13-15, 29-33
Last week we heard St Paul speak of his deep concern for the Jewish people who had not accepted Christ. The hope he has for them is repeated today with the added thought that God has not given up on his promises to the original chosen people. Now, however, there is an emphasis on pagans, and like the Psalmist Paul speaks of God’s mercy to all humans. In the opening lines, he mentions his special apostolate to preach to the non-Jews or ‘Gentiles’ of the Roman Empire.

The odd expression of God ‘imprisoning’ all in disobedience is explained by Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J. as: ‘All, Jews and Greeks, have as groups been unfaithful to God, who makes use of such infidelity to manifest to all of them his bounty and mercy – to reveal just what kind of God he really is.’ Both groups do in some sense profit from God’s love and neither of them has any special cause for disdaining the other, as all comes from God’s saving gift.

Matthew 15:21-28
This story has been a difficult one for many, including commentators, as they see Jesus seeming to be rude to the Gentile woman, and unwilling to heal her daughter. I find a very good analysis in R. T. France’s commentary, but as it takes up 8 pages, this will be a shorter summary incorporating his explanations.

The context is helpful: in the previous verses which we have missed out in the liturgy, Jesus has been engaged in a controversy with the Pharisees about what is really important – the inner disposition or the minute traditions of strict behaviour (15:1-20). After this confrontation, he ‘withdrew’ – perhaps because he expected the persecution that would come later when he goes to Jerusalem. Clearly this was meant not as a preaching or healing journey, but one of respite for him and his disciples, as he will be doing again in next week’s reading. The area outside Judea around Tyre and Sidon (present-day southern Lebanon) is where the people were traditional enemies of the Jews, and where there was little interchange between the two peoples. Despite the growing enmity of Jewish leaders, Christ is not abandoning the mission to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’.

Matthew makes it clear in his gospel that after the Resurrection the disciples would not be restricted to preaching to the Jews but were ‘to make disciples of all nations’ (28:19). In the meantime, Jesus himself has come to call first the ‘lost sheep of Israel’. Once before, Jesus had healed a non-Jew, the centurion who came to him on behalf of his son (8:5-13). That prepares us for his making a second exception.

What are we to make of this dialogue which begins with silence? Matthew calls the woman a ‘Canaanite’ which has a historical connection – in contrast to Mark who tells the same story with different details and more accurately for the time says she was Syro-Phoenician (in today’s geographical terms, Syrian-Lebanese). This may stress the difference between the enemies and the descendants of Israel’s promise. She ‘shouts’ perhaps because as an outsider she does not want to approach the Jewish teacher. She uses a term kyrie in the Greek that can either mean ‘Lord God’ or be a polite title – ‘Sir’ as our reading translates it. Further she addresses him as ‘Son of David’, which indicates she knows something of the Jewish faith, and may even share some belief in the idea of a Messiah. From the beginning, she shows absolute belief in the healing power of Jesus.

I see humour in the following account, which begins with the disciples urging Jesus to get rid of her because she is annoying them! As France says, 12 strong men should be a match for a woman. They may mean for him to quickly answer her request so that she will leave them alone. Jesus, however, tells them of the limits of his Messiah-ship, in words the woman would also hear. She persists and now comes closer, ‘kneeling’ in a reverential position. ‘Banter’ is I think not too strong a word for the dialogue between them. France notes that much in conversation is carried in the tone of voice or facial expression that does not come over in ‘cold print’. (In our times, many people using the internet have made mistakes because of this.)

Jesus speaks to her in terms of a parable, with the word of ‘dogs’ which does echo the traditional insult of Jews to others. She turns the parable back to him by pointing out that the dogs do eventually get fed with the children. She wins her case and gets the approval of having ‘great faith’ – which Jesus says to no one else in this gospel. (In contrast, he reproaches his own disciples at times for their ‘little faith’ –we will hear that next week.)

France: ‘Need we assume that when the woman won the argument Jesus was either dismayed or displeased? Might this not have been the outcome he intended from the start? A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view.’ Whether or not we accept this interpretation, the refusal was far from Jesus’ last word on the subject, nor does it mean rejection on his part. If we consider the context of the previous debate with the Pharisees, we see that Jesus commended the foreigner for her trust while he condemned the leaders for putting petty rules before real righteousness. God will accept – heal and save – on the basis of faith and not ritual performance or ethnic origin.

The whole incident thus ‘foreshadows the time when the people of God will include Gentiles equally with Jews on the basis of their faith.’ Since the indications are that Matthew wrote for a mixed community of converted Jews and non-Jews, this could have been an important text for them, partly a reminder to the Jews that God includes others equally, and to the Gentiles that they have benefited from the history of God’s chosen people. (Compare Paul’s letter.)

We could in personal reflection on this reading, see this as a call to us to have the same kind of ‘great faith’ in what God can do for us.

Joan Griffith
Originally published 2014
Republished with her family’s permission