The dogmatic constitution on the Word of God that came out of the Second Vatican Council told us that there were three things that are crucial to understanding the Gospels: the experience of Jesus, the author, and the audience for whom the author wrote.
Each of the Gospels comes to us from a person who has experienced Jesus or who had been taught by someone who has experienced Jesus.
However, the other two factors are different for each of the Gospels. Matthew was a former tax collector who had been called by Jesus, left his scandalous position of cooperating with the Roman occupation, and had been named as one of the Twelve. Matthew’s audience was the community of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, Jewish men and women who came to place their faith in Jesus. Both Matthew’s life experience as well as his audience color the way he presents the Gospel, the Good News, of Jesus Christ.
Recognizing Matthew’s audience and their culture and social practices is crucial to understanding today’s passage from the Gospel. We know that the Jewish people considered themselves to be God’s chosen people, so we should not be surprised to learn that this community generally thought that if you wanted to be a Christian, you first had to be Jewish. One of the issues that the early Christian community had some difficulty dealing with was the notion of including Gentiles in the community. This is clearly indicated in the Acts of the Apostles which was written by a Gentile, St. Luke.
The culture and society of Israel was segregated. Jewish people simply did not associate with Gentiles as such associations would leave them ritually impure or unclean. Consequently, Jewish people did not enter into Gentile homes or Gentile communities. Conversely Gentiles did not enter into Jewish territory because they were unwelcome in it. So we are immediately caught off guard at the beginning of this Gospel passage that tells us that Jesus “withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” Once again, Jesus is stretching the margins of his culture and society.
We also know that men and women did not speak in public. So when we hear that a woman called out to Jesus, we are again caught off guard. This is compounded by the fact that the woman is a Gentile. This just wasn’t done. It would have been offensive in the extreme.
So why does the women call out to Jesus? One possible answer is that she was emboldened by the fact that Jesus had done something that was culturally taboo. Perhaps she reasoned that if he could come into her territory, then she could call out to him.
The Gospel tells us that Jesus simply ignored her. That doesn’t seem to work. So the disciples ask him to shoo her away as she is disturbing and offending them by her bold behavior. When she asks him to heal her daughter, Jesus gives the correct Jewish answer. He has come for the children of Israel, a position that would have been very much the thinking of Matthew’s audience. Jesus was for them. However, she presses forward and boldly answers him with a correct assessment of the situation herself.
It is at this point that the story becomes very familiar. Jesus praises the woman’s faith. Her faith has saved her daughter. This is the conclusion of many of the various healing stories of the Gospel. Faith saves.
How would Matthew’s audience have reacted to this story? What would the Jewish Christian community think of Jesus’ actions? What is Matthew trying to convey to this community? As they struggle to come to terms with the notion of Gentiles following Jesus, this story reveals Matthew’s answer to their question. Jesus came to save all.
This really should not have come as too much of a surprise to the Jewish community. The great prophet Isaiah was also a proponent of inclusion. Isaiah tells his community that if Gentiles pass certain tests, they will be included at the great Messianic banquet on the mountain of the Lord. They are to join themselves to the Lord, minister or worship God, love the name of the Lord, become God’s servants, and keep the Sabbath. All who do what is right and just will receive salvation and will realize God’s mercy. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the sacred writers have maintained that God of Israel is the God of all nations. This message is especially prevalent in the prophetic books and in the wisdom literature, particularly in the psalms and proverbs of the Hebrew Scriptures. Unfortunately, it is a message that did not sink in.
St. Paul, a Pharisee schooled in the Hebrew Scriptures is very much aware of this. As he writes to the Jewish Christian community of Rome, he reveals his motivation for preaching to the Gentiles. He is trying to make his fellow Jews jealous so that they will join him in following Jesus. While he is not successful in converting all of his fellow Jews, he does extend God’s kingdom to almost all of the then known world. While St. Paul had one motive, God had a different plan.
I have to admit that coming as it does at this particular moment in our own history, these readings are a message that we need to hear. The past few days and weeks have been filled with distressing events. Once again, our history of segregation in this country has boiled over. The headline on the front page of this week’s “Our Sunday Visitor” blares “Charlottesville and the Need for Healing.” Several Catholic bishops and groups throughout our nation have called for peace after three people died and several others were injured following clashes between pacifists, protesters, and white supremacists. Archbishop Gregory of Atlanta and several others have told us that we must speak out about these events. To remain silent is to agree. Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston called the abhorrent acts of hatred on display in Charlottesville an attack on the unity of our nation which summon us all to fervent prayer and peaceful action. Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia called racism the poison of the soul and the original sin of the United States and an illness that has never been healed. The Provincial Ministers of the seven Franciscan Provinces in the United States wrote: We hold that all forms of racism, white supremacy, neo-nazism, xenophobia and hatred are wrong. Because we believe that every person is created by God in love, we also hold that disrespect or diminishment of—or violence against—anyone offends not only that person but also the One who created that person.
The Gospel for this 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, indeed all the readings for this Sunday, make the exact same point. Just as Matthew wrote to his community of Jerusalem, he writes to us today. All people have been saved through the life and death of Jesus. We are all children of God. We are called to live together in love of God and love of neighbor.
The Church teaches us that the Eucharist we share is the Sacrament of Reconciliation between God and the human family. If we eat and drink at the table of the Lord, the reconciliation we experience must extend to all. We must also embrace all men and women as equal and children of God if we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus worthily.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator