August 14, 2011 - Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

Today’s Gospel is disturbing, which is to say that from the rest of the Gospel we have a certain image and understanding of Jesus and today’s Gospel disturbs that. If this were the only story we had about Jesus, our whole image of him would be very different. There are various ways that people try to make sense of this passage, but few of them make any sense at all.

Was Jesus grouchy? No! Jesus, who died meekly upon the Cross, who came to serve and not to be served, who loved us so much that he died for us, was never grouchy. Was this just a saying in his time, and not as offensive as it seems to us? “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” No! Jesus always was careful about what he said, and, actually, the phrase is far, far more offensive in the original than it is now.

Was Jesus racist? He grew up in a culture that hated foreigners; did he learn to hate from the culture around him? No! Those who defend this idea suggest that the woman here taught Jesus a valuable lesson, but Jesus was not a man of his time, and, when he grew up, he grew in wisdom, age, and grace, not in prejudice, selfishness, and hatred.

Jesus just knew what words would be perfect here. Whether he is speaking to the woman at the well or inviting a new disciple, Jesus always knew just what to say to elicit the response he was looking for. God does test us. He puts challenges in our way so that we might grow as we deal with them, exercises that are difficult at the time, but make us a better person for having gone through them. We should follow the example of this woman when God tests us: be persistent, humble, and just a little bit clever: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

Perhaps Jesus was leading the woman into a deeper faith herself, or, perhaps, he knew that she had a faith so deep that it could withstand a little trial, and he wanted to use this opportunity to show the disciples how deep her faith was. He says, “O Woman, great is your faith!” Did this surprise the disciples? Jesus is paying her a compliment that he does not give out lightly. He more often says, even to his own disciples, “You of little faith.”

So Jesus’ words need not be too disturbing when considered this way, but what is going on with this division between Israel and the Gentiles? The Israelites were the chosen people. Out of all the nations on earth, God picked them, the descendants of Jacob, to be his own people. Why did he choose them? There are two reasons given consistently in the Scriptures. They were chosen because of the faith of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they were chosen because they were a small, unimportant nation. God could not have accomplished his plan with a large, powerful country, like Egypt or Rome.

God took this people, and, after 400 years of slavery, he brought them into the Promised Land with great power. Then, for the next 1000 years, he let them be conquered and freed them over and over again. The whole Old Testament is basically the story of all the times that Israel was conquered and won back their freedom. Then he let them be conquered by Babylon, who took the Jews away from their land. Jerusalem was destroyed, not one stone was left on top of another, but then, after 70 years, Babylon was conquered, and God brought them back to the Promised Land. They lived there for 500 more years, always under the power of some empire or another.

Being God’s people was never an easy proposition. He was harder on Israel than any other nation. Being God’s people did not mean that Israel would be rich or powerful. It meant that they would learn over the course of 2000 years more about God and who he was than the rest of the world combined. By the time of Jesus, Israel understood important concepts like mercy and forgiveness. The religions of the pagans still tried to trade animal sacrifices for money, yet even in the Roman and Greek cultures we can see the influence of the Jews. They became a leaven in the world, preparing the world to receive the Gospel. If Jesus had come without all this preparation, no one would have understood his ministry. Even though most of the Jews rejected the Gospel, the millions of Gentiles were only able to be converted through the ministry of the Jews who had accepted it.

In the psalm today, we sang, “O God, let all the nations praise you!” When that was written, it was far-off hope; today it is the reality. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaims that, “The nations will join themselves to the LORD.” When this was first written down, it surely seemed very unlikely, but today the prophet Isaiah was read right here in Mahopac, New York – the other side of the world from where it was written. We are the fulfillment of these prophecies.

In the past 2000 years, there has often been conflicts between the Jews and the Christians. Many times Christians persecuted the Jews, often using spurious theological justification for what they had done. This is not acceptable. Israel remains forever God’s chosen people. Although we, the Church, are now God’s chosen people, Israel does not lose its status. Someday, all of Israel will join the Church. Until that day, we preach the Gospel to all, Jews and Gentiles, but those Jews who do not freely accept the Gospel should be respected as the people whom God used to convert the world.

St. Paul, in the second reading, tells us that as the Jews were used by God to convert the Gentiles, so the Gentiles will be used to convert the Jews. In other words, when we Christians, Jews and Gentiles, start living our faith, not merely avoiding sins but really loving each other as ourselves and God above all else, then the Jews will see this and become Christian. Indeed, not only the Jews but the whole world. The very best way to preach the Gospel is to live the Gospel. No one would be able to resist joining the Church if we all were shining forth as the light of the world and the salt of the earth.