God's Word on Sunday: All welcome to love God, walk in His ways

  • August 17, 2023

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 20 (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 67; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28)

The command of the Lord was forceful and unambiguous: maintain justice and do what is right. It doesn’t require a theology degree or private revelations to understand, and yet people find this extraordinarily difficult.

The guidance in the Scriptures is consistent as well as insistent: care for one another, behave with mercy and compassion, be generous and openhanded, have a forgiving heart, be faithful to your inner conscience. These are not all specifically religious qualities — they apply to all humanity, to those of various faiths or none at all. It is how we were put together — it is what we were meant to be. God’s warning at that point in history came at a crucial moment — the period following the return of the exiles from Babylon. Their deliverance was indeed at hand, and that made justice and righteousness essential.

But God had a surprise — when the temple was restored, He would not be checking passports or ID cards. All were welcome, regardless of where they came from or who they were. The only entrance requirement was loving God and walking in His ways.

After the return from Babylon, there was an attempt to remain aloof from non-Israelites and to maintain the purity of the temple. This divine prophecy was a challenge to Ezra and Nehemiah, two post-exilic prophets instrumental in rebuilding Israelite society. In their view, intermarriage was strictly forbidden and those who had taken foreign wives were pressured to renounce them. This passage not only admits non-Israelites, but further on in the chapter welcomes eunuchs, who had previously been excluded. God was expressing the divine will — don’t build walls, but bridges. Humans have their ways, but God has His, and in the end God prevails. This is something we need to reflect on today when the urge to exclude and to build walls has once again shown its stern and unloving face. “A house of prayer for all peoples” was God’s vision and fervent wish for the temple, and it needs to be ours too.

Paul struggled to make sense of the refusal of Israel to accept Jesus as the Messiah. He saw it as part of a divine plan to reach out to the Gentiles and bring them into the household of God. Paul insisted that the gifts and calling of God were irrevocable. The Jewish people were still precious to God, which is something Christians have often tragically forgotten. Paul felt deeply that God’s eventual plan was to bring both Jews and Gentiles together, but in the meantime, things would be rather confusing and messy. All who reflect God in their hearts and in their lives are acceptable and pleasing to God.

The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman leaves many with an uneasy feeling. It is not the Jesus we are used to seeing and He seems rather cold and testy. The woman who approached Him was not of the house of Israel. Luke reported that she was Syrophoenician, but Matthew used the term Canaanite, which was not altogether complimentary. As she cried out for Jesus to heal her daughter, He seemed to turn a deaf ear to her pleas. In fact, He gave her the brush off and refused her request. As many have pointed out, we have no way of knowing His tone of voice or the context of the incident, or whether He was setting up the Apostles for a learning experience.

The woman persisted and knelt before Him, but He said that it was not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs — scarcely an encouraging answer. Most people would have slunk away, but not her. She shot right back with a smart answer — even the dogs get the crumbs and scraps from the table. Jesus was impressed, and because of her great faith, granted her request.

Faith often means persistence, even in the face of fierce opposition. Faith overcomes obstacles and barriers and does not take no for an answer. As we know from the life of Abraham, faith — absolute trust — counts as righteousness in God’s eyes. We can find many inspiring examples of faith today, even in non-religious contexts. Tough times, such as those we are experiencing now, call for great faith, courage and persistence.