Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday word, 14 August 2011

20th Sunday of the Year A (14Augl2008)

Is 56. 1, 6-7; Ps 67; Rm 11. 13-15, 29-32; Mt 15. 21-28

Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.

All People, One At a Time

This gospel episode leads many to dismay, not just scratch their heads at Jesus’ behavior. Jesus and the Canaanite woman met in what it is Lebanon today: Tyre is 20 miles south of Sidon and only 12 miles north of the Israel-Lebanon border. While today’s borders situate the scene for us, the region of Tyre and Sidon in Jesus’ time lay beyond the land of the Israelites. King Solomon had given the area to King Hiram after he supplied cedar and cypress timber and gold for the temple Solomon built.1 By Jesus’ day lands long given away to people with alien religious practices led those of Israel to avoid or to associate reluctantly with Canaanites.

Avoidance and reluctance deepened during the exiles to foreign lands. The entire series of exiles of different portions of God’s people lasted 195 years. Losing their freedom again and tasting long, bitter exiles from their land easily made the Chosen People suspicious of and reluctant to associate with people with other gods and religious practices. Yet God’s desire was different and grand. At the end of one exile Isaiah announced it: not only did God desire God’s people again to be close to God, God desired to be close to all people: foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord...all who keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant…will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Their prayerful hope for that to happen was built into their worship: May the peoples praise you, O God!2 Yet the Chosen People forgot they had a part to play with God to make that happen. Their part—their vocation3—paved the way for this universal salvation, and it had priority: Observe what is right, do what is just. God’s people had a role in God’s salvation: observing what is right and doing God’s justice prepared for God’s desire: my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed.

So astonishing was this to the Chosen People that we heard the disciples of Jesus tried to dismiss a non-Jewish woman from Jesus with her plea for help and healing. Even Jesus shared his disciples’ instinct by his curious phrase, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” What was the Son of God, who desires all be saved, thinking? The better question is, What was Jesus feeling? Why ask that? Because Jesus was fully human as well as divine.

Jesus knew rejection well. People in his home town of Nazareth had rejected him.4 Before he met the Canaanite woman, Jesus defended his disciples against Pharisees and scribes…from Jerusalem, who accused them of break[ing] the tradition of the elders.5 Their accusation of his disciples was another slap at Jesus and the prophetic authority he claimed. They were offended by Jesus reply to them.6 Jesus did not call the Pharisees and scribes blind guides7 without strong feeling and personal need.

No wonder Jesus “got out of town!” He needed a respite from being rejected and to think of new ways to win his people—the lost sheep of the house of Israel—to the desires of God, who had sent him. They were uppermost on his mind when a foreign woman threatened his respite. Yet, as the Canaanite woman was in need and being rejected, Jesus was in need and knew rejection well. His human instinct inherited from his people gave way to God’s priority when Jesus saw the woman as one of those foreigners who join themselves to the Lord. Only God’s healing power could satisfy her great faith, and Jesus could not betray himself, who embodied that faith and healing. Through one Canaanite woman Jesus made the divine desire to save all people more real and clearer for all to see.

In your 15 minutes with Jesus this week:

  • Pause in the love the Trinity has for you: creating you is the Trinity’s priority.
  • Ask the courageous Canaanite woman to present you to Jesus.
  • Praise Jesus by name and implore Jesus for what you need.
  • Ask Jesus to make your heart more generous so you can engage and live your faith with greater enthusiasm and confidence.
  • Close by saying slowly the Lord’s Prayer. It is Jesus’ words given us to grow in courage and wisdom and to make Christian love our priority for the sake of all people and our world.


  1. 1 Kings 9.11.
  2. As it is ours: we echoed it with Psalm 67 as our Response to the First Reading; also that prayerful hope is in the Liturgy of the Hours, most recently yesterday, Saturday, Week III, Morning Prayer, with Psalm 117 and the prayer after it.
  3. Beginning with one person, Abraham (Genesis 12.1-3), to an entire people (Exodus 19.4-6). Its priestly role was to live in a way that brought others closer to God.
  4. Matthew 13.54-58.
  5. Matthew 15.1-2.
  6. Matthew 15.12.
  7. Matthew 15.14.
Wiki-image by Pete unseth of an Isaiah scroll is used according to the Creative Commons 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license. Wiki-image of Jesus and the Canaanite woman from a book of hours is in the public domain.

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