Lectionary commentary: twentieth Sunday of Ordinary time



A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 56:1. 6-7

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 67. 2-3. 5-6. 8. R/. v. 4

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 11:13-15. 29-32

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 15:21-28

The Bible as we know it began when the ancient people of what became Israel began to tell their stories. It began when families and tribes handed on by word of mouth their tales of ancestors and heroes, some fact, some fiction. Wars, with victories and defeats, derring-do and failure, were celebrated or mourned in song and story. Around campfires, at family and clan celebrations, around altars and in make-shift temples, in moments of prayer to their God, priests and sages nursed faith from past into present devotion.

Stories of men and women, the stories children learned at their mothers’ knee, became “the faith of our fathers”. They became creeds and determined what people believed and how they lived. The present was lived by fidelity to the past. What fathers and mothers in faith learned sustained their children as they ventured into their future. The meaning of life was determined before you were born.

The trouble with the present is that it never quite repeats the past in every detail. New wars, new diseases, new famines, new discoveries, new thinking, new experiences, question traditional faith. The present is always an uneasy place to live in. The only utterly ever-present reality is death.

The challenge is to marry the faith of the fathers with the challenges of the present. That is, the challenge is to create a future. Prophets, men and women of wisdom, rake over the past. Teachers learn to sift the past, not as past merely remembered. The past is scrutinised to test its ability to negotiate the present. Living according to faith handed down must be forever questioned. It must be tested by present experience to determine whether it can be trusted to forge a habitable future. The old rules are shaken through the strainers of experience. Some certainties of the past are shown to be porous and unfit to meet the demands of present experience. Old certainties of the past are seen to be brittle. There must be refinement, change, and even new conceptions of faith. The present always forces the past into the forge of experience. In that uncompromising forge the certainties of the past are hammered into new shapes, new hopes, and unforeseen challenges. What emerges is called the future.

The most important words in history are “we can’t go on like this”. Prophets sit at the city gates and call for thought. Think about it! That is what is on the tee-shirt of every prophet:

Therefore because you trample on the poor
and you exact taxes of grain from him,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not dwell in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.

Amos 5:11-13

Judgements are made. The certainties of the past are always on trial in the present where they are lived and tested in new and challenging circumstances:

For I know how many are your transgressions
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time,
for it is an evil time.

Amos 5:11-13

Not everyone, of course, keeps silent and voices are heard. Of course, say all the wise ones, we must not throw out the baby with the bath water. The present has forced us to look to the past and negotiate a way to discern what is always true and always life-enhancing. Weeds that choke the wheat of wisdom of the past must be uprooted. Tares sown by enemies of truth must be thrown on the fire of experience:

Therefore because you trample on the poor
and you exact taxes of grain from him,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not dwell in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate …

Amos 5:11-13

There has to be another way, a new future:

Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be with you, as you have said.
Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Amos 5:14-15

The conclusion of all this is plain to see. To be sure, the Bible concerns itself with the origins of creation and of humanity within the garden of the world. Its teaching that God’s justice and God’s peace must prevail if creation and its people are to be the “very good” that pleased the eye of their Creator. But that is not how it turned out. Therefore change is born. Failures are recognised. The present lives to repent the past and, with a firm purpose of amendment, to construct a new future.

The Bible is not a book about the past. The Bible is not a book about the present. The Bible, in its every page, is a book about the future. The Bible is always intent on creating all things new.

A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 56:1. 6-7

Thus says the Lord:
“Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my righteousness be revealed.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him,
to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called
a house of prayer
for all peoples”.

The word of the Lord.

How can this be? How is it that the wisdom of Isaiah passed down the years demands a new future? As a people called to freedom from slavery, did we not learn to obey on Mount Sinai when God spoke to our fathers and mothers? Moses himself taught us what God spoke to him and our lives were patterned by God’s holy words. We have eaten only what was commanded. Our men-children have been circumcised eight days after birth. Our kitchens have been swept clean. We have kept to ourselves, knowing that we are precious in the eyes of the Lord. Were these articles of faith not enough?

But all is not well. The present is sullied by the contamination of the rich and powerful, by people who shun what is right and disturb the peace of God’s world. Who listens to the poor man at the gate?Who values the widow’s mite?

There must be a new future. The full potential of the covenant must be realised on earth. There is one Lord, one Father of all. The future must belong to the Good Shepherd if the flock of the world is to be safe. The words of Isaiah demand that a new future emerge from the tatters of past and present failure.

You must look more carefully to your past. You must scrutinise the present. Above all, you must see that the God who guided you out of Egypt, the God who rescued you from the clutches of the Assyrians and Babylonians, is the God of all lost sheep. Lost sheep must be found and carried to safety on firm and broad shoulders. That is what the future is. It is only when all sheep are safely bedded in eternal folds that a new song may be sung:

Glory to God in the highest,
and peace to his people on earth.

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 67. 2-3. 5-6. 8. R/. v. 4

R/.Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all nations. R/.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth. R/.

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you!
God, our God, shall bless us.
let all the ends of the earth fear him. R/.

Amos lived 800 years before the child was born in Bethlehem of Judea. This prophet, a native of Tekoa, a tiny village beside Bethlehem, saw a future for the nations. Some songster took up the challenge of the prophet and wrote a new song for a new future. The whole earth one day will know the ways of God and God’s rescue will extend to all peoples:

Let all the nations praise you, O God!

All the nations will rejoice in a glad song and the blessings of God will grace all peoples. God’s gentle hand will rule the world. The kingdom of God will be earthed. It is not enough to sing Israel’s song quietly. The future belongs to God and the song must be sung by the choir of nations. It is God’s song, the song that hymns the future.

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 11:13-15. 29-32

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead.

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

The Gospel of the Lord.

Paul’s letter to the little house-churches in the big city of Rome has brought us from the days of Adam to the days of his apostleship. Paul was chosen by God to be a slave of Christ Jesus, set apart for the gospel of God (Romans 1:1). What Adam inflicted on humanity has been undone by Jesus, the Son of God in power … by his resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4). In first seven chapters of his Letter to Roman Christians Paul have traced the tragic story until, in chapter 8, he celebrates God’s victory over SIN and DEATH and triumphantly declares to the little churches.

… you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons and daughters, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father”.

Romans 8:15

Not only that. The story does not end in the present. For the whole point of undoing Adam and giving Jesus to the world is to announce with the utmost clarity that the future of creation belongs to God. The Jesus story is a revelation of the future, a disclosure that humanity, indeed, the whole of creation, is destined to come to eternal peace. The gospel of God is that the true way of the world is lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, directing and empowering humanity on the path that leads to shalôm, to the sacred heart that beats with steadfast love that endures forever:

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.

Romans 8:22-24

We wait eagerly. The future beckons but is not yet. The past of Adam is undone. The present is suffused with the Holy Spirit of Jesus. The future beckons creation and its people to glory. We are not waiting for Godot.

Yet for Paul there is great sadness. He was a Jew, born a Jew and a Jew he remained until his dying day. He became a Pharisee by religious conviction and remained true to his Pharisee convictions until the day he died. Yet his brothers and sisters did not recognise the life of God in the man from Nazareth. Some few did. But the many did not. In tears Paul reveals a deep pain:

I have a great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers and sisters.

Romans 9:2

Yet Paul comforts himself that God has not abandoned his brothers and sisters. They belong permanently to the glory of God and will, as will all humanity, be brought safely home.

Then, as we read and hear today, God makes a suggestion. God has given faith to the Gentiles, to all the non-Jews in this world, so that one day God’s own people, the Jewish people, will feel left out will rush to embrace the gift of God in our Lord Jesus.

The reason Paul gives as a sure and certain proof that all peoples will come to the glory of God is so true that many, Christians and Jews alike, do not believe a word of it:

For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

Romans 11:32

That is to say, all people are sinners (no problem there) and therefore all people are saved. All God’s chillum got wings!

If you don’t believe it, and you cling to the belief that lots of people go elsewhere, listen carefully to Paul next week.

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 15:21-28

Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters 'table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

The Gospel of the Lord.

The Bible is not about the past. The Bible is not about the present. The Bible is about the future. The Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon tells us so. The woman who came crying to Jesus is a distraught mother .But she is much more that that. She is one of the finest theologians in the New Testament, right up there with St. Paul when one gets down to the utterly essential message of God given to the world in Jesus.

A Canaanite woman

St Mark tells his version of the story (Mark 7:24-30), different from Matthew’s in essential details. His account serves a somewhat different agenda to that of Matthew’s. Readers and hearers of Matthew should acquaint themselves with Mark’s version of a wonderful story.

The first thing to notice in both Mark and Matthew is that Jesus leaves Palestine and withdraws to the district of Tyre and Sidon. In Matthew’s account the reason for withdrawing from his homeland of Galilee into Gentile territory may be due to hostile pressure from Pharisees (see Matthew 15:1 - 15:20). Jesus had declared against the teaching of Pharisees and their scribal advisers.He insisted that it wasn’t food laws that mattered. Much more essential to godly living was what came out of the mouth. This dispute is remarkably like St. Paul’s conviction that food laws are not the be-all and end-all of the Jesus story. The main point to grasp is that Jesus left his homeland of Palestine and ventured into the pagan world.

When Jesus was sending the Twelve on a learning mission, an apprentice exercise, he commanded them, saying,

Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Matthew 10:5-6

However, at the end of Matthew’s story these disciples will be turned into apostles fit to teach the Jesus way and to baptise the nations into God’s love.

He is in the district of Tyre and Sidon. He is joined by his disciples after a woman of that region comes out and begs mercy for her daughter. These little details are important. It is ever the case that Jesus goes before to wherever disciples must follow.

The woman is a Canaanite. The Canaanite peoples were noted manufacturers and traders. Purple dye was an expensive export from a very prosperous region. According to the Bible the Canaanites had occupied the whole of what became the land of Israel. The invasion of the hordes of slaves from Egypt led by Joshua conquered the land and it became the holy land of God’s people (read the Book of Joshua - but with caution). The enmity created by dispossession engendered centuries of conflict and hatred.

The Canaanites were regarded as “the olde enemy”. So the woman who comes to Jesus comes carrying the burden of centuries of hostility. The woman and Jesus are both carry the scars of history.

Notice that Matthew changes St. Mark’s identity of the woman. Mark’s Gospel, a source used by Matthew, identifies her more precisely:

… the woman was a Greek, a Syro-phoenician by birth.

Mark 7:26[1]

Matthew begins his version of the story with an insistence that she comes from the hated ancient enemy:

Behold! a Canaanite womanfrom that region came out …

Matthew 15:22

That Behold! ensures that his readers and hearers do not miss the point: she not just a pagan but a woman from the camp of perpetual foes. In Matthew’s version of this meeting he underlines the enmity between Jew and Gentile.

Mercy me, Lord, Son of David

Listen to her cry:

Lord, have mercy on me!
Kyrie, eleison mē.

The woman prays the prayer that has been and is forever on the lips of Christian people. The prayer, adapted from the Psalms, graces our Mass and manys a prayer besides. She addresses Jesus as Lord, as his intimate disciples in the storm-tossed boat did:

Lord, save us!

Matthew 8:25

The woman calls on Jesus as Peter did when he was beginning to sink beneath the waves:

Lord, save me!

Matthew 14:30

Three times!Three times in this story this woman addresses Jesus as Lord, the bedrock of Christian faith. She recognises that faith comes from Jewish faith, addressing Jesus as Son of David. Such is the faith of this heart-scalded woman who pleads for a daughter oppressed by a demon.


… he did not answer her a word.

When the disciples arrive on the scene (his disciples came…) these learners, soon to be dispatched to teach all nations and baptise them into the care of the Holy Spirit, are heartless. She is simply an annoyance to be dismissed:

Send her away for she is crying after us.[2]

The words of Jesus are true. He has been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.The mission of Jesus was to his people, the people of Israel, as the angel revealed to Joseph:

you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

Matthew 1:21

His task was to call his people to a renewed responsibility, to a deeper reflection of the creator God who called them out of Egyptian slavery. The lost sheep of the house of Israel describes the many in Israel who had forgotten their vocation to be a light to the nations. Jesus inherited the voice of Amos, of Isaiah, of Ezekiel, of Jonah, and of all the prophets who sought to call God’s people to be what they were meant to be.

The woman does not challenge the truth of the words of Jesus. Instead she throws herself to her knees.Matthew uses a verb here that he reserves consistently for kneeling in worship (proskuneo). The Magi had travelled “to worship him” and when the star brought them to the house “falling down, they worshipped him”. On her knees, like the pagan Magi, again she beseeches her Lord: Lord, help me.

Again, the words of Jesus do not speak of mercy, of compassion, of love, words that define the very being of God. To describe the Canaanites, indeed, the whole Gentile/pagan world as “the dogs” (to be precise, “the little dogs”, “the pups”) can hardly be understood as an expression ecumenical outreach. Many explanations seek to let Jesus off the hook, explaining away the plain and painful refusal to be moved by the prayers of distress coming from a broken motherly heart.

The woman, on her knees before him, a third time addressing him as Lord, points to a simple fact. People drop crumbs to dogs that yap in expectation around the table. She is asking her Lord to leave traditional pride and prejudice aside and save her child. A crumb of mercy is all she asks.

At last Jesus speaks directly to her. He addresses her as Woman. This should not be taken as a derogatory form of address, unusual though it be.[3] Rather he recognises the mother pleading for her child, a woman whose daughter has been taken away from her by a demon. He recognises that this is a woman of great faith and it is that womanly faith that moves him to mercy her as only he can.

The past

Matthew found the story of the woman in Mark’s Gospel. But he does not copy it word-for-word. He edits it very carefully. The woman is turned into a Canaanite. Her recognition of Jesus as Lord is emphasised. Her prayer for mercy is met by a steely silence:but he did not answer her a word. The disciples, these apprentice apostles, are for sending her away, annoyed by her cries for mercy. If we follow the text closely, the explanation I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel seems to be directed to the disciples, not to the woman. Jesus reinforces their dismissive arrogance with a veneer of theology, true though it is. Even her worship on her knees and her plea for help is dismissed with an insulting remark from Jesus. She no better than a pup yapping around a table of plenty. In short, she is a pagan, a Gentile. She is beyond mercy. He is not concerned with her pain. But her intelligent and deep faith overcomes routine prejudice and her daughter is instantly healed.

That is the story that, with deliberate editing, Matthew presents. Why tell the story at all?Why drag up this incident that does not immediately proclaim the Jesus of mercy?In almost the very next sentence following the woman’s story we read of an abundance of mercy:

Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel.

Matthew 15:30-31

The present

Matthew’s community was deeply divided. Jewish Christians had their version of Jesus. Former pagans who made their way to faith in Jesus were not happy to adopt Jewish identity and undergo circumcision and to take on the lifestyle of traditional Jewish culture.What can he do to teach both parties that Paul, the great apostle in the early days of the gospel’s arrival in that great city, was right? For this is what Paul taught there in the very same city:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

Paul taught the same message to Jew and Gentile Christians in Rome:

… we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.

Romans 3:28-29

The woman’s story comes from the past. But it resonates in the present. For the peace to prevail in the torn communities in Antioch both sides must meditate on the meeting of Jesus and the woman. Jesus came out of his native soil. The woman came out in distress.In that meeting her daughter was healed. What leads to healing is faith. That is all that is necessary, wherever you come from, whatever the past may proclaim. There is a new thing under the sun, as Paul declared:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

II Corinthians 5:16-17

The future

Matthew well knows that the riches of the God’s covenant with the People of Israel remain at the heart of things. Jesus was not sent to abolish the Law.He was not sent to abandon the Prophets:

Amen I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a jot, will pass away from the Law, until all has come to pass.

Matthew 5:18

The relationship of Jew and Gentile, the relationship of universal neighbouring is not simply meant to be a present reality. It is a present pointing to the stars. The past sayings and deeds of Jesus gospel the world and call the world to present obedience, to the doing on earth according to God’s design(“… as it is in heaven”). But the purpose is to come to a future.The healing that is done to a daughter possessed is a joyous answer to prayer. But it is more than that.It is a sign that all humanity will be rid of its demons and come to healing in an eternity of peace. The greatness of the woman’s story is that she is an apostle of God’s story.

Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.

[1] “Greek” here means that culturally she was a Greek, that is, a Phoenician woman who lived according to the culture imposed on the people conquered by Alexander the Great and his Greek successors. Matthew is not interested in her cultural veneer.When you strip her down, she’s a Canaanite.

[2] The Jerusalem Bible in our present Lectionary has Give her what she wants … because she is shouting after us. This is a seriously misleading “modernising” of Matthew’s plain Greek sentence.

[3] In John’s Gospel Jesus addresses his mother as “Woman”at a Cana wedding and as he is hanging on the cross. He addresses the wonderful Samaritan woman in the same way (John 4).