20th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

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

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for mankind.  That is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of This Sunday's Readings: The Universal Call to Salvation
Jesus made it the mission of the Church to spread the Gospel "to the ends of the earth," calling the people of all nations to salvation in Christ Jesus (Mt 28:19-20).  However, it was always God's plan to invite all peoples to covenant unity with the One True God, returning them to the one family in fellowship with God that existed before the Fall of Adam.  Today's readings affirm that universal call in God's Divine Plan for humanity. 

In the First Reading, Yahweh told His covenant people through the Prophet Isaiah that the Jerusalem Temple shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  Isaiah received prophetic visions and oracles that concerned the "new Zion" of God's redeemed people.  God promised that all peoples of the earth could look forward to the Messianic Era when He would extend the gift of salvation to all nations (Is 56:1-12).  Yahweh promised that in the "new Zion" of the Messianic Era, He would open His house of worship to the Gentiles who were previously excluded from Temple worship (Is 56:1, 6a).  In the promised new age, all the righteous who observed His commandments could look forward to participation in the future Messianic salvation regardless of their national origin.  Jesus quoted this verse from the book of the prophet Isaiah concerning God's promise for a universal salvation when He cleansed the Jerusalem Temple on Sunday and again on Monday of His last week in Jerusalem.

The covenant people proclaimed God's plan of universal salvation in their Temple liturgical worship services when they sang from Psalm 67: So may your way be known upon earth; among all nations, your salvation (Responsorial Psalms).  And St. Paul reminds us in our Second Reading that all peoples of all nations, Jews and Gentiles, can have confidence in God's call to salvation because the gifts and call of God are irrevocable

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus demonstrated God's mercy in the universal granting of His gifts. Jesus was sent to first announce the coming Kingdom of God to the Jews, but He healed the child of a Gentile woman who was not a member of the Sinai Covenant when she expressed her faith and trust in Jesus to save her child. Jesus' gift of eternal salvation is available to everyone who comes to Him in faith and obedience.

God's gift of eternal salvation does not mean that everyone will be saved regardless of their beliefs or practices. The belief that everyone will achieve eternal salvation is the heresy of universalism. See the document "Ancient Heresies Recycled in the Modern Age." One must make the free-will commitment to accept God's gift of salvation by living in a covenant relationship with God the Son—no one can make it to Heaven on their own merits. Today the Church prays in the alternate opening prayer that people of all races and nationalities will answer God's call to salvation and join the family of the universal Church: "Almighty God, ever-loving Father, your care extends beyond the boundaries of race and nations to the hearts of all who live. May the walls, which prejudice raises between us, crumble beneath the shadow of your outstretched arm. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen."

The First Reading Isaiah 56:1, 6-7 ~ Welcoming Foreigners into the Covenant
1 Thus says the LORD: Observe what is right, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed.  6 The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, ministering to him, loving the name of the LORD, and becoming his servants—all who keep the Sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, 7 them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Isaiah 56:1-66:24 is the third part division of the Book of Isaiah.  It contains prophetic visions and oracles concerning the "new Zion" and the promise that all peoples of the earth can look forward to the Messianic Era when God's gift of salvation extends to all nations (56:1-12).  In the "new Zion" of the Messianic Era, God says He will open His house of worship to the Gentiles previously excluded from Temple worship (56:1, 6a).  In the promised new age, all those who are righteous and observe His commandments can look forward to participation in the future Messianic salvation, regardless of their national origin. 

In verse 6, the Lord lists five necessary conditions of obedience:

  1. Ministering to Him (offering sacrifice and praise in liturgical worship)
  2. Loving Him
  3. Becoming willing servants
  4. Keeping the Sabbath obligation
  5. Upholding the covenant by keeping the commandments

How many of these obligations of obedience do you keep?  The New Covenant Sabbath is Sunday, "The Lord's Day," and keeping it is one of the Five Precepts that are the minimum obligations for members of the universal Catholic Church (CCC 2041-43).

7 them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

To those who are faithful, God promises to bring them to His "holy mountain."  The "holy mountain" is a possible reference to Mt. Moriah (also symbolically called Mt. Zion) in Jerusalem, the site God's holy Temple where the faithful offered worship in prayer, praise and sacrifices to Yahweh.  But it can also refer to the universal Church in the Messianic Age—the age in which we live.  A "holy mountain" is symbolic language in Scripture for a revelation of God, as God's chosen people experienced a revelation of God at His "holy mountain" of Mt. Sinai (Ex 19:16-19).  Our "holy mountain" experience in the Messianic Age is in the Liturgy of the Mass where the faithful "lift up their hearts" and experience a revelation of God the Son in the Eucharist.

7b for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
God's invitation is not limited to the covenant people of Israel but extends to all peoples of every nation, ethnicity, and social status who seek the Lord with a pure heart and live according to His commands.  Jesus quoted verse 7b when He drove the money lenders out of the Temple precincts during His last week in Jerusalem (Mt 21:13a and Mk 15:17a).  It is likely that the money lenders had set up their tables in the Court of the Gentiles.  Buying and selling in the Court of the Gentiles would profane the sacred space that was meant to teach the Gentiles about belief in the One True God and to bring them into the covenant with Yahweh, giving them the hope of salvation.

The "universal" (meaning of the word "Catholic") Church of Jesus Christ fulfills the Messianic hope of salvation extended to all nations promised in this passage.  It is the mission of the Church to carry the Gospel of salvation to the ends of the earth and to welcome all people of every nation into the family of God through baptism in Christ Jesus (Mt 28:19-20; Mk 16:15-16).  For more information on the "new Zion" see the document "Zion and the Presence of God."

Responsorial Psalm 67:2, 3, 5, 6, 8 ~ Praise for the Lord of all Nations
The response is: "O God, let all the nations praise you!"

2 May God have pity on us and bless us; may he let his face shine upon us.  3 So may your way be known upon earth; among all nations, your salvation.
Response:
5 May the nations be glad and exult because you rule the peoples in equity; the nations on the earth you guide.
Response:
6 May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you! 
8 May God bless us, and may all the ends of the earth fear him!
Response:

The title of this psalm is, For the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.  A Psalm.  A Song. 
In this hymn, the psalmist asks God to continue to show His favor to His covenant people.  The other nations of the earth will see God's favor to His covenant people as a sign that will reinforce God's call to all the peoples of the earth to come to His promise of salvation (verse 3).  The psalmist prays all nations will acknowledge God's just rule and give Him praise (verses 5-7).  The hymn concludes in verse 8 by asking for God's blessing upon His covenant people and expresses the hope that all nations of the earth learn to fear offending God and will give Him both their reverence and praise.

The praise of God by all nations comes about through the mission of the universal (Catholic) Church which fulfills the desires expressed in this psalm by welcoming all nations into the family of God through the Sacrament of Baptism.  The Church's liturgy uses this psalm on the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God.  We acknowledge our Blessed Mother's role in bringing God's gift of salvation to all nations through the courage of her submission to God in willingly bringing forth the promised Messiah, Jesus.

The Second Reading Romans 11:13-15, 29-32 ~ God's Irrevocable Gifts and Call
13 I am speaking to you Gentiles.  Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I glory in my ministry 14 in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them.  15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
29 For the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.  30 Just as you once disobeyed God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they have now disobeyed in order that, by virtue of the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.  32 For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.

In Romans 11:11, St. Paul asked what was God's intention when He allowed Israel to stumble over the "stumbling stone" that is Christ by their rejection of the Messiah.  He asks, "Was it that Israel's fall should be irredeemable?"  Paul answers his rhetorical question by pointing out that their "stumbling" has brought salvation to the Gentiles (verse 13).  Then he continues with the consequences of extending salvation to the Gentiles for the Jews.

13b Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I glory in my ministry 14 in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them. 
It is interesting that Paul will repeat the word jealous (arouse to jealousy/envy = parazeloo) three times in Romans 10:19, 11:11, and 11:14 as a key to understanding God's plan that at first veiled the minds of the Israelites and will later bring them to salvation.  It is Paul's hope that the Gospel of salvation will stir them to envy the riches of the blessings of the New Covenant people, and will also stir them to accept, through grace, the salvation of Jesus Christ.  This hope of salvation is brought about not through Jesus Christ the "stumbling stone" but the "stone untouched" by human hands prophesied by the prophet Daniel: In those days the God of heaven  will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not pass into the hands of another race; it will shatter and absorb all the previous kingdoms and itself last forever—just as you saw a stone, untouched by hand, break away from the mountain and reduce iron, bronze, earthenware, silver and gold to powder.  "The mountain" in the passage refers to the Jerusalem Temple.  Through God's design, the Israelites/Jews refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah, and yet they are still the "chosen people."  It is the "new Israel of the holy "remnant" of Jesus' Jewish Apostles and disciples who function in God's plan the as Israel's representatives, as the nucleus of the universal Church, and as the pledge of God's promise of the future restoration of all Israel.  See Isaiah's promise in 4:3-6 and Paul's proclamation of the salvation of Israel in Romans 11:25-26; also see CCC 877).

St. Paul's point is that Israel's loss is:

  1. a great gain to the world
  2. a great gain for the Gentiles
  3. a great gain for the restored Israelites

Why?  Because:

  1. Israel's renunciation of the Messiah forces Jesus' faithful remnant of New Covenant disciples to carry the Gospel message of salvation outside of the Holy Land and into the world.  Thereby, in their expanded mission, they gathered in all the Gentile nations, thus fulfilling the worldwide blessing God promised the Patriarch Abraham (see Gen 12:3; 22:15-18 and Gal 3:29).
  2. The gain of the Gentiles is the wealth of their inheritance.  It is the rich inheritance in which they have come to share in what was formerly solely the inheritance of Israel.  Their inheritance is the knowledge of the One True God and the hope of salvation.  Carrying the Gospel message to the world brings the Gentile nations back into covenant with God as children of His holy, universal family, the Catholic Church. 
  3. The ten tribes who were scattered among the Gentile nations (the lost tribes of Israel) by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC, will be fully restored to their place of destiny as children of God in the universal Church!  This restoration is what the prophets promised from the time of the exile of the ten Northern Tribes of Israel, beginning with the first of the exiles taken out of the Galilee.  The Galilean tribes of tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, taken into captivity in 732 BC, were scattered into Gentile lands to the east, and the rest of the Northern Kingdom followed them into exile in 722 BC.  It was for this reason that Jesus began His ministry in the Galilee, to restore Israel in the very area where Israel's loss of the Promised Land began (see Mt 4:12-16 quoting Is 8:23-9:1 LXX and 2 Kng 15:29; 17:6-7; 24).

Saint Paul's belief in the promises of God made through His holy prophets gives him the confidence to make this claim of a future restoration of his people.  The prophet Isaiah prophesied the fulfillment of the worldwide blessing and the ingathering of the nations in Isaiah 66:18, I am coming to gather every nation and every language.  They will come to witness my glory.

In Romans 11:13-15, Paul speaks of his pride in being an Apostle to the Gentiles, but the reunification of Israel as a Covenant people is also part of Paul's mission. When Paul suffered in blindness and repentance in Damascus after his conversion experience, God told the Christian prophet Ananias concerning Paul: "... for this man is my chosen instrument to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel."  It is significant that God didn't say "Judah" (the nation of Israel ceased to exist with the Assyrian conquest in 722 BC, and only the Southern Kingdom of Judah remained).  St. Paul understood that his mission included bringing the lost tribes of Israel back into the covenant family by bringing them in from the Gentile peoples in whom their blood has been mixed down through the centuries. 

15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
In verse 14, Paul said it is his hope to stir his Israelite brothers to envy to bring them into the New Covenant.  Then in verse 15, he compares the ingathering of the lost tribes into the New Covenant with the promised resurrection from the dead.  But what he means by this comparison is not clear.  He may be comparing the resurrection of a spiritually dead Israel to a rebirth in the Sacrament of Christian Baptism (called the "first resurrection").  He may also be using the comparison of a new life in Christ for those who carry the blood of Abraham, even unknowingly, in Gentile nations with Jesus' Resurrection from the dead (see Rom 6:4).  However, he might also be saying that the conversion of Israel will be such a miracle that it can only be compared to the final ("second") Resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

29 For the gifts and call of God are irrevocable. 
There were Jews who rejected the salvation offered to them through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, becoming enemies Christians.  In doing so, they stood in opposition to God's Divine Plan of universal salvation.  God has permitted this reversal in the Messianic Age of the universal Church.  However, since the gifts and the covenants with God are irrevocable, He is still faithful to the promises He made to the Patriarchs in choosing the children of Israel as His covenant people.  There is no change of mind on Gods part about the gifts He has made or His choice.  Here in Paul's statement, we have the tension between the two great stages of Salvation History: Election and Gospel.

30 Just as you once disobeyed God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they have now disobeyed in order that, by virtue of the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.  32 For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.
Then in verses 30-32, St. Paul addresses the Gentile Christians.  He admonishes them to remember that they sin just as the Jews sin—they are equal in that regard.  However, just as God has shown mercy to the Gentiles to bring them to salvation through Israel's rejection, He will also show mercy to the Jews.

Verses 30-32 are similar to what Paul wrote in Galatians 3:21-22 ~ Is the Law contrary, then, to God's promises?  Out of the question!  If the Law that was given had been capable of giving life, then certainly saving justice would have come from the Law.  As it is, Scripture makes no exception when it says that sin is master everywhere; so the promise can be given only by faith in Jesus Christ to those who have this faith.  Just as God extended His love and mercy to the Gentiles who were outside the covenant, so too must the Christians, both Jewish and Gentile Christians, as one covenant people, extend God's mercy and love to exiled Israel.  With the Sinai Covenant fulfilled and replaced by the New Covenant in Christ, Jesus is their only means of salvation (Acts 4:12; Heb 8:6, 13).  And we, as the younger brothers and sisters, are bound to our Divine Father's promise to Israel, the elder sons and daughters of the covenant: For Yahweh your God is a merciful God and will not desert or destroy you or forget the covenant which he made on oath with your ancestors (Dt 4:31).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses our Christian commitment to our Jewish brothers and sisters of the Old Covenant faith in CCC 674: "The glorious Messiah's coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by 'all Israel,' for 'a hardening has come upon part of Israel' in their 'unbelief' toward Jesus.  St. Peter says to the Jews of Jerusalem after Pentecost:  'Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.'  St. Paul echoes him: 'For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?'  The 'full inclusion' of the Jews in the Messiah's salvation, in wake of 'the full number of the Gentiles,' will enable the People of God to achieve 'the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,' in which 'God may be all in all'" (quoting from Rom 11:20-26; Acts 3:19-21; Rom 11:15; Rom 11:12, 25; Eph 4:13 and 1 Cor 15:28).  To pray for and to be a witness for Christ to our Jewish brothers and sisters is an obligation of every Christian.

The Gospel of Matthew 15:21-28 ~ Reward for the Persistence of Faith
21 At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  22 And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!  My daughter is tormented by a demon."  23 But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.  Jesus' disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us."  24 He said in reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  25 But the woman came and did Jesus homage saying, "Lord, help me."  26 He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs."  27 She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."  28 Then Jesus said to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish."  And the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.

In this passage, Jesus makes His second expedition into Gentile territory where Jews are living.  His first visit into Gentile territory was the eastward journey into the Decapolis (Mt 9:28-34).  This time He travels west toward the Mediterranean Sea into the district of two great Gentile trading centers, Tyre and Sidon.  These cities were originally Phoenician cities but in Jesus' time they were cities of Hellenistic (Greek) culture and prestige under Roman rule.

22 And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!  My daughter is tormented by a demon." 
A Gentile woman, described as a descendant of the Canaanites, approaches Him and asks Jesus to heal her daughter of demon possession.  The woman appeals to Jesus three times, and He tests her faith three times.  Notice that in her first appeal that she respectfully calls Jesus "son of David," acknowledging His Messianic title as the promised Davidic heir.  In St. Mark's Gospel, he tells us that the woman "fell at his feet in homage" (Mk 7:25), showing Jesus the respect He deserved as the promised Davidic heir.

23 But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.  Jesus' disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us."  24 He said in reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
Jesus' first test is to ignore her request, but when she persists, He finally responds.  Jesus' reply seems unfeeling.  He tells her that He has only come for the "lost sheep of the house of Israel."  This is His Messianic mission as stated in Ezekiel chapter 34.  It is His mission to gather the scattered sheep of Israel and to heal and restore God's people of the new Israel to fulfill their destiny to carry the Gospel of salvation to the Gentile nations of the earth.

25 But the woman came and did Jesus homage saying, "Lord, help me."  26 He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs."
The woman, however, is not discouraged by Jesus' reply and she makes a second appeal.  In His second reply, "the children" are the children of Israel who are God's chosen people, the food is the word of God and His merciful blessings, and the dogs, unclean animals not fit for sacrifice are the Gentiles.  Jews often referred to Gentiles as unclean "dogs" who are unfit for worship or sacrifice.  St. Mark's Gospel softens Jesus response.  He says, let the children be fed first.  For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the [little] dogs" (Mk 7:25a).  The Greek softens Jesus' response by using the term "little dogs" or "puppies" (kynarion), suggesting domesticated "house dogs."  It is Jesus' intention to test the woman's faith.  Nevertheless, the essence of His answer is the same that He gave the Samaritan woman at the well: salvation is from the Jews (Jn 4:22). 

27 She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."  28 Then Jesus said to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish."  And the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.
The Gentile woman continues to press her petition.  Her clever reply is that even the house dogs eat the scraps under their master's table, suggesting that God feeds the Jews as well as Gentiles.  The result of the persistence of her petition together with her faith that Jesus has the power to heal her daughter moved Jesus to reward her.  Jesus compliments her on her faith and heals her child.

The Gospel reading has two messages for us.  The first message is that no one is unworthy of God's mercy or His gifts.  The second message is that we must be persistent in prayer when petitioning the Lord.  Our persistence is a demonstration of our faith in God's power to intercede in our lives.

Catechism References:
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7 (CCC 851)
Romans 11:13-26 (CCC 674, 755); 11:15 (CCC 674); 11:29 (CCC 839); 11:31 (CCC 674); 11:32 (CCC 1870)
Matthew 15:22 (CCC 439, 448); 15:28 (CCC 2610)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017