20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dominica XX per Annum A

20 August 2017

The Scripture lessons of this Holy Mass tell us of the expansion of God’s saving desire and mission to include not only His People Israel, but also those outside of the Chosen People.  If this expansion had not occurred then anyone who was not Jewish would be excluded.  That would likely mean you and me, and just about everyone in this parish, would fall outside of God’s saving mission.  But since Jesus extends his mission beyond Israel we find encouragement and belonging and the hope of salvation.  Because of this we ourselves make up part of that great throng across all of human history of the “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,” as we heard in the first reading.

The first reading from the Prophet Isaiah gives us this indication of God’s expanded saving desire.  In this section of Isaiah a focus on Temple worship emerges more prominently than in earlier sections.  This new focus admits that even Gentiles, non-Jews, foreigners can be admitted to the Temple.  They demonstrate their belonging and their being joined to the Lord, as the reading said, by their ministering to God (which is liturgical service), by their keeping of the Sabbath, and by their sacrifices made on God’s altar.  Notice what is not mentioned as a sign of belonging.  Isaiah notes all these signs of foreigners being joined to the Lord but, curiously, he doesn’t mention circumcision.  Instead the selection from Isaiah is loaded with sanctuary imagery as the sign of belonging to the Lord.  There is a new emphasis and a more broad sign of belonging within God’s saving love and that is found by being brought to God’s “holy mountain” and by presence in the Lord’s “house of prayer for all peoples.”

The expanded saving mission of God in Christ Jesus is shown in concrete particularity in the gospel where Jesus encounters the non-Jewish, Canaanite woman.  Jesus seems different to us in this odd exchange with the woman.  He seems uncharacteristically rude, even cruel.  When she first begs for help for her demon-tormented daughter, Jesus doesn’t even say a word in response.  He then tells his disciples that his mission is only to the children of Israel.  It’s a clear message to her, as if to say: “You’re a Gentile idolater and I’m here for the Jewish people.”  And, finally, given his use of the derogatory term “dogs,” used at that time for non-Jews, we might wish Jesus had maintained his silence.  It would seem better.

There is much debate about this passage.  Jesus is clearly never lacking in charity and he is never seeking to be cruel.  He is not only full of the love of God, he is divine love itself.  How do we understand this passage?  Some suggest its apparent harshness can be balanced by seeing instead that Jesus is simply testing the woman’s faith and drawing her by stages to profess a faith in him that will bridge the gulf of her being a foreigner and so join her to himself.  Others suggest that Jesus’ use of the word ‘dogs’ in plural softens it some and makes it less as if he is directly calling the woman by a derogatory term.  Still others, noting that the Scriptural account is first written in Greek, indicate that the term for “dogs” applied to Jesus is the Greek form of the word for a house pet or a pup, a diminutive form, and not the standard derogatory Greek word that would refer to a filthy dog on the street, a scavenging mutt.  Still others speculate that where the words might cause us wonder and surprise at Jesus’ exchange, perhaps it was his tone of voice or the look on his face that softened what seems in translation to say very harshly “dogs.”  Whatever the case, Jesus tests her faith three times in this exchange and, as the gospel shows, it leads to her clearly getting his point, not being offended, and instead indicating that even she, a foreigner, is connected to Jesus, like a pup to its master.

So pulling from the words of Isaiah, where is the holy mountain of God, to which He brings us who were foreigners?  Pulling from the words of the gospel, where is the table of our master, from which he feeds us who were foreigners?  The answer is: here!  In the Exodus the sign that God’s people were truly free was that they were to serve God in worship on the holy mountain (cf. Ex. 3:12).  God gave His law as a covenant on the holy mountain.  The mountain figures prominently in salvation history and so, it was the mount of Calvary where the greatest covenant took place, the New Covenant in Jesus’ Blood.  Of this covenant Jesus himself spoke: “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all men to myself” (Jn. 12:32).  He will draw all to himself, not just the Jews.  We should understand the Holy Mass as going up to the mountain of God.  In the preparatory prayers of the old Mass, Psalm 42 would be prayed at the steps to the altar.  Among other things, that psalm put on the priest’s lips the words that God’s light and His truth would lead me to His holy mountain, to His dwelling.  And immediately after mentioning the mountain, the psalm continues “I will go up to the altar of God.”  A clear connection of God’s mountain to the altar.  The Catholic altar is the mountain of the New Covenant!  That sense of going up to God’s mountain in our worship is why in our sanctuaries there is the architectural preference that sanctuaries be elevated, often by at least three steps to signify the Three Divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity.

In a sense then, our coming to the sanctuary of the New Covenant in Jesus, our service, our sacrifices, and our prayer here, is our “mark” of belonging to God and no longer being outsiders.  Baptism now replaces the mark of circumcision and so, once baptized, our living with God in worship and sacrifice shows we are marked as belonging to Him.  In this context, we might understand anew the Church’s teaching about the seriousness of our worship and the call to keep the Lord’s Day holy by attendance at Holy Mass.  For a Christian to absent himself from Sunday worship is, we could say, a refusal of the mark by which he is joined to God, and therefore mortal (deadly) sin, because it is a choice to dwell among those who remain outside the saving mission of Jesus!  At Holy Mass we are gathered together as members who belong to the New Covenant.  But we are gathered not for the sake of ourselves; our gathering is not just about us.  Rather we are called to turn together to gaze upon the Lord and to await his return.  We come to experience the presence and the power of the one saving sacrifice of the Cross that is eternal.  Gathered at Holy Mass, on the mountain of God, we offer the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, by which he offers himself to us as saving food.  Gathered here, and borrowing imagery used with the Canaanite woman, we, in a sense like pups, are fed from the sacred altar, the Master’s table where gifts far greater than scraps are given: the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus who incorporates us into his saving mission, into his Church, and into his Body destined for the home of heaven!