Commentary on the Word of God for Sunday, August 16th
It was the belief in Israel that salvation was only for Israel, the descendants of Abraham. Even after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, already in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter was questioned by the other Apostles why he entered the house of the Roman Centurion Cornelius and baptized his whole household. The behavior of Jesus in our Gospel episode of today dramatizes this belief.
Jesus went out of Israelite territory into pagan land of Phoenicia, today’s Lebanon with Tyre and Sidon as the capital cities. A pagan woman called out to him for help, but using a messianic title: “Lord, Son of David.” Jesus gave no reply. The apostles felt embarrassed by the loud shouting and urged Jesus to send her away. He gave the explanation, verbalizing the belief: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman was of pagan stock, a Canaanite from the region of Phoenicia, not of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. She was nevertheless a mother in dire need because daughter was tormented by a demon. Her motherly love made her do a daring act of approaching Jesus, and bowing low before him cried, “Lord, help me.” Jesus’ reply was not only a rejection but an insult: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Her reply was a stubborn faith that stood firm with great motherly love, “Please, Lord, even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their master.” Confronted by such faith and firm trust in his person, note that she kept calling him “Lord,” Jesus yielded and granted her request; her daughter was healed from that hour.
Let us observe that Jesus got out of Israelite territory, a symbol of universal mission. The woman was not Jewish but Gentile, not among the “children of God.” And yet she called him “Lord, Son of David.” She manifested firm faith in his person and his power to drive the demon from her daughter. She also had great humility to receive even insulting words. We are made to understand that salvation is not only for the descendants of Abraham, but for all who believe in the person and power of Jesus. Do I have that faith and humility?
The call of the Gentiles into faith in Yahweh and the salvation he offers was already prophesied by Isaiah six hundred years before Christ: “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants ….them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer;….for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is 56:6-7). Our 1st reading also includes v 1 which is a call to holiness: “Observe what is right, do what is just.” It is not enough to simply attend Mass on Sundays and holy days. To be a good Catholic one needs to have faith in the Person of Jesus and trust in his power to save, as the Canaanite woman did; he must also observe what is right and do what is just. A good Catholic cannot just come to Church and feel good among fellow Catholics, but when he goes home kill the unborn, engage in premarital sex, live in adultery, use or push illegal drugs, oppress his servants or employees and violate the Commandments of God left and right. There is need to “observe what is right and do what is just.” Then the Lord will “bring you to his holy mountain and make you joyful in his house of prayer.” 2 Chr 7:14-15 reminds us, “If my people, upon whom my name has been pronounced, humble themselves and pray, and seek my presence and turn from their evil ways, I will hear them from heaven and pardon their sins and revive their land. Now my eyes shall be open and my ears be attentive to the prayer of this place.”