Saturday, August 13, 2011

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Cycle A

“Christ and the Canaanite Woman “
by Juan De Flandes, c. 1500
Readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time[1][2]

Readings and Commentary:[3]

Reading 1: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7

Thus says the Lord:
Observe what is right, do what is just;
for my salvation is about to come,
my justice, about to be revealed.

The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
ministering to him,
loving the name of the Lord,
and becoming his servants—
all who keep the sabbath free from profanation
and hold to my covenant,
them I will bring to my holy mountain
and make joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be acceptable on my altar,
for my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all peoples.
Commentary on Is 56:1, 6-7

This passage is part of what scholars call the “Post Exilic Torah” or the law after the return.  In this selection we see that foreigners (those living outside Palestine) are offered member ship in the faith community.  The other important element is the temple is given the name “a house of prayer”.  This passage was quoted by Jesus as he drove the money changers from the temple (see Mark 11:17 and Matthew 21:13).

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 67:2-3,5-6, 8

R. (4) O God, let all the nations praise you!

May God have pity on us and bless us;
may he let his face shine upon us.
So may your way be known upon earth;
among all nations, your salvation.
R. O God, let all the nations praise you!

May the nations be glad and exult
because you rule the peoples in equity;
the nations on the earth you guide.
R. O God, let all the nations praise you!

May the peoples praise you, O God;
may all the peoples praise you!
May God bless us,
and may all the ends of the earth fear him!
R. O God, let all the nations praise you!
Commentary on Ps 67:2-3,5-6, 8

Psalm is a song of thanksgiving.  These strophes request a blessing, that through the Lord’s graciousness the nation might be an example of faith others will follow.


Brothers and sisters:
I am speaking to you Gentiles.
Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles,
I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous
and thus save some of them.
For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world,
what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.
Just as you once disobeyed God
but have now received mercy because of their disobedience,
so they have now disobeyed in order that,
by virtue of the mercy shown to you,
they too may now receive mercy.
For God delivered all to disobedience,
that he might have mercy upon all.
Commentary on Rom 11:13-15, 29-32

St. Paul’s concern for the Hebrew people who have reject Christ becomes clear in this passage as he states clearly that one of the reasons he became “apostle to the Gentiles” was to make them jealous. He does so in order that they would recant their rejection of the peace and eternal life offered by salvation in Christ and accept the promise offered by the Messiah.

The concluding verse makes it clear that even though the Jewish people who rejected the Gospel of Christ are “enemies on your account” (v. 28). Their election as the chosen people is irrevochable – the offer of salvation is not withdrawn.


At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
Jesus’ disciples came and asked him,
“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
He said in reply,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
He said in reply,
“It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters.”
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
“O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.
Commentary on Mt 15:21-28

There was a long history of tension between the Canaanites and the Hebrews that was at a high point when Jesus encountered the woman. She clearly knew what she was doing as she addressed him as “Lord, Son of David” identifying him by that name as a Hebrew.

Jesus, while the words attributed to him are harsh, did not do as most of his own contemporaries would have, begin throwing stones at her to drive her away. His disciples were begging him to do that. Jesus recognized the great gulf between them but opened his healing touch to the woman’s child when her faith in him was demonstrated.

In this selection Jesus has withdrawn from Palestine to escape the persecution of the Pharisees and scribes and to spend time training his disciples. The region they come to is predominantly gentile and sets the scene for his encounter with a Canaanite woman (in St. Mark’s Gospel it is the syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30).

The exchange between Jesus and the woman is intended to describe the universal nature of the messianic mission. Within the dialogue we see Jesus first refuse to accede to the woman’s request (even though she recognized his authority “…the woman came and did him homage, saying, "Lord, help me."”). 

This same pattern of refusal and then acquiescence is found in St. John’s Gospel (John 2:4, John 4:48)The metaphor being exchanged in this banter refers to the “children” being the Hebrews and the “dogs” a reference to the Gentiles (frequently referred to as such by Hebrews of the day). While this seems out of character for the Lord, our translation leaves out some conversational nuances that soften the dialogue. The word translated as “dogs” in this translation could be more accurately expressed as “pups”. It is also significant that the children and pups are eating at the same table, again expressing the universal nature of the mission of the Messiah.


In spite of the way the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman sounds, the message given is actually one of unity. We hear Jesus refuse the woman who has come to him. She caught him at a very bad time. He had just traveled to Tyre, he needed a rest, time away from the confrontations with the Pharisees in Palestine. And here comes this woman, a gentile, and throws herself at him.

Jesus is true man as well as true God. He became tired just as we do and curing the sick and casting out demons took much effort on his part. So he declines. He has not been as successful with the Children of Israel as he had hoped. The gospel he brought had not been well received in his native land and here comes this gentile woman making claims on that message of salvation.

Jesus uses a slang expression but softens it. In scripture we here the world used was “dogs”, however, the Aramaic expression would have been more like pups. The woman persists and uses the metaphor to her own advantage and the Lord expels the unclean spirit from her daughter.

The message that is clear from this encounter is that Jesus brought the message to everyone, not just a select few. And his call to us is to take up that message and pass it on to others. We find that difficult to do at times. We even find it difficult to express that message to others who are tasked with sharing the same message, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

This then is what the Gospel calls us to do on this day – to bring the message of God’s love to those we meet. To express it in words and actions in a way that cannot be misunderstood. In this way we respond to the Lord as he responds to us – in love and understanding.


[2] The picture is “Christ and the Canaanite Woman “ by Juan De Flandes, c. 1500
[3] The readings are taken from the New American Bible with the exception of the Psalm and its response which were developed by the International Committee for English in Liturgy (ICEL). This re-publication is not authorized by USCCB and is for private use only.

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