ColumnsSunday’s Word

May all the people praise you

August 16, 2020


Is 56:1, 6-7

Opening to temple to all

Ps 67:2-3, 5-6, 8

May all the people praise you

Rom 11:13-15, 29-32

The Apostle to the Gentiles

Mt 15:21-28

Jesus and a Canaanite Woman


This week’s Scripture readings are unusually coordinated for a celebration in the Ordinary Time, outside the special seasons. Outreach to the nations is the theme. Or, in other words, our own inclusion in the plan of salvation. Even the passage from Paul, usually on a track of its own, conforms, as he concludes the central section of the letter to the Romans. Chapters 9-11, deal with the role of the Gentiles. Of course, Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles, so this is an important part of his message.

The first reading begins the third section of the book Isaiah, commonly attributed to an anonymous prophet whom we call for convenience Third Isaiah. What is significant about Isaiah 56-66, which likely includes numerous authors, is that it is written back in the land of Judea, shortly after the return from Babylonian exile. The temple is rebuilt, though nothing like the temple of Solomon which was destroyed.

They are amidst a somewhat hostile environment. Eventually Ezra and Nehemiah will erect strict social and cultic barriers around the returned community. Laws concerning Sabbath worship, kosher food, and mixed marriages become strictly enforced. Circumcision becomes an important marker of community identity. There is a strong sense of defensiveness.

But that will come some time later. For now, the Isaiah tradition offers a much more open approach. Second Isaiah in Babylon called the Jewish exiles a “light to the Gentiles,” encouraging them to encourage the conversion of other peoples, among whom they now found themselves (Isa 42:6; 49:6). Here, back in the land, Third Isaiah continues that positive note.

His framework is their mental map of holy and unclean, centered on the temple. The criterion was proximity to the divine. The Holy of Holies, the sanctuary, was at the center. This was surrounded by the temple itself, a Holy Place. This was inside the Holy City, center of the Holy Land.

The prophet imagines a time not far away when the temple would be opened to the world, to faithful believers of all nations.

Two categories of unclean persons are featured in the passage — eunuchs and foreigners. They represent all who are banished from the temple area. Eunuchs fail the holiness test on the grounds of lacking wholeness. Wholeness was one way of considering holiness. That passage is skipped today.

The foreigner was banned on grounds of belief. This person was beyond the edge the concentric circles of holiness, as mapped out from the temple as center. The prophet annuls that prohibition. He even imagines that some will be priests in the temple.

This is background for today’s Gospel reading. Of all the Gospel writers, Matthew, writing for Jewish Christians, is more restrained concerning the mission to the nations. He has shown Jesus telling his disciples that they are to go “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5). Also, he doesn’t announce the mission to the larger world until the final verses of the Gospel, when Jesus sends them out to baptize all nations (28:16-20).

But today we see a rare exception to that program. A Canaanite woman (Matthew uses the ancient name of Israel’s enemies) asks a favor. Release her daughter from a demon. Jesus repeats what he said to the disciples earlier: He was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Categories of uncleanness also shape this story. The woman is a Gentile, her daughter is possessed by a demon, an un­clean spirit. Unclean food can be thrown to the dogs. And the conversation circles around these issues. Finally, based on her witty response, Jesus agrees to heal her daughter.

Matthew is pointing ahead to the coming mission to the nations.

For reflection: Christian universal vision confronted a tribal world, and changed it.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.