First reading: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7.
Psalm: Psalm 66(67):2-3, 5-6, 8.
Second reading: Romans 11:13-15, 29-32.
Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28.
Link to readings.
We can find a single theme running through all three readings this Sunday: the inclusive scope of God’s saving plan.
When the Israelites returned from Exile, they found that many foreigners and neighbouring peoples had moved into the land which once they had called their own. How was living cheek by jowl with non-Israelites compatible with Israel’s sense of identity as a holy people, set apart for the service and worship of God? In the First Reading, Isa 56:1, 6-7. the great prophet of the Exile (Isaiah 40-66) presents a bold vision where God will actually bring to the “holy mountain” (the Temple mount) foreigners who have attached themselves to the Lord, making of the Temple a house of prayer for all the peoples” (cf. Mark 11:17). The privilege of worshipping God is so central to Israel’s identity that it is hard to think of a stronger expression of inclusivity than this.
The Gospel, Matt 15:21-28, telling of Jesus’ encounter in the region of Tyre and Sidon with a Canaanite woman whose daughter was tormented by a devil, presents us with one of the most striking episodes of inclusiveness in the Gospel tradition.
Just prior to entering this Gentile region, Jesus had given a long instruction in response to criticism from Pharisees and scribes that he did not live according to the tradition of the elders concerning ritual purity, that is, what was “clean” and “unclean” in a technical religious sense (15:1-20). Rebutting the criticism, Jesus insisted that “uncleanness” (meaning incapacity for worship) is not something that one “catches,” like a contagious disease, from external objects or particular kinds of food. Rather, such incapacity is something that proceeds from within a person. It is not the failure to perform external rituals like hand-washing but evil intentions and behaviour that flow from the heart that renders a person unclean.
Having thus broken through the ritual cleanliness barrier in his teaching, Jesus now enacts such boundary-crossing “geographically”, so to speak, by crossing over into a region (Tyre and Sidon) where “unclean” Gentiles made up the majority. There the faith of a Gentile woman brings about a breaking of the barrier in a far more significant way.
In the very full account of the episode given by Matthew, the sense of separation of “holy” Israel from “unclean” Gentile world emerges with increasing intensity. Jesus first ignores the woman completely, despite the persistence and force of her plea, as she turns to the Jewish Messiah (“Son of David”) for help. The disciples’ urgent recommendation, “Send her away”, seems to imply “Get rid of her by granting her what she wants, but Jesus he coldly insists that his mission is restricted to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (cf. 10:5-6). When, in one of the most moving gestures in all the Gospels, she comes and kneels before him and simply begs, “Lord, help me”, all she receives is a third rebuff in the form of the heartless image about not throwing the children’s food to dogs.
But here, at last, is her chance. With superb wit, she takes up Jesus’ image and turns it against him — or at least against the restrictive attitude he is displaying. Certainly, food prepared for children is not intended for domestic animals. But children eat untidily and house dogs under the table seize any scraps that fall. “Outwitted”, Jesus gives in, agreeing to her request and praising the greatness of her faith.
Many readers of the gospel will doubtless be troubled by the apparent coldness that Jesus initially displays towards this desperate person. By depicting him acting in such a way, however, the narrative first intensifies the sense of the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, only to highlight the significance of what is happening when, as a result of the woman’s faith, the barrier comes crashing down. Recent feminist interpretation has rightly identified this Canaanite woman as one of the great heroes of the Gospel tradition. Jesus allows her to “educate” him out of the narrow understanding of his mission that his early responses betray. He is not only Messiah for the Jews but also the One in whose “name the Gentiles will place their hope” (12:21). The great mission charge to the nations at the end of the gospel (28:18-20) has its anticipation and impulse here.
In the Second Reading, Rom 11:13-15, 29-32, inclusiveness works the other way round, so to speak. The bulk of Israel has said “No” to the Gospel of the Crucified. Does this mean they have forfeited the chance of salvation? No, says Paul: the God who in great fidelity has worked to include the nations of the world will not fail to act inclusively in favour of the original People of choice, for God’s “gifts and calling are irrevocable”.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media