Homily: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A
The ancient Jews thought that they were a “chosen race”; and this, for good reason. Throughout the Old Testament in the Bible, we read how, time and again, God called this people and set them apart by making a covenant with them: a sacred contract which united this people to God by an irrevocable bond. Because of this covenant, God demanded that his people would hold to a higher standard of living. Now, I’m not talking about the house they live in or the clothes that they wear, but rather about their conduct: both with him and with each other. They were to treat each other justly and to keep themselves from the defilement of sin—most importantly, the defilement of in any way acknowledging or worshiping the false gods of pagan peoples.
What this led to, as you might imagine, is that the ancient Jews became very strict about how they interacted with non-Jewish people. They feared that any interaction with any non-Jew would lead to defilement before God and so they severely restricted the ways in which a Jew could interact with a non-Jew.
Nevertheless, throughout their history, God revealed to his “chosen people” that one day even non-Jews would be acceptable to him. In other words, that he would extend the benefits of his covenant even to those who were not direct descendants of one of the sons of Israel. Our reading from the prophet Isaiah is an example of this. In it, he states that “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord…” following his statutes and commandments, will be acceptable to him and God will lead them to the place of true worship, the temple in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, where they will offer sacrifice and praise and, thus, receive blessings from him. Isaiah concludes by saying “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
For an ancient Jew, who perhaps had gotten quite comfortable with the idea that their race was a race “set apart” from all others and, thus, held a distinct privilege above all others, to hear this prophesy that all peoples will one day be united under God might have upset some of them. Everyone likes to feel like they are special and that they are part of something special and unique. Grateful as the ancient Jews may have been for God’s favor, they nonetheless were reluctant to accept that God’s favor could be given to anyone. They feared that, by allowing other races to enter, they’d lose their distinctiveness as a race and, thus, the particular favor that they enjoyed before God.
At the time that Jesus walked the earth, those fears were at fever pitch because of the Roman occupation of the holy land that God had given to his chosen people. The Jews, therefore, were greatly anticipating the Messiah, the one who would liberate them from the oppressive Roman regime and usher in the kingdom of heaven: a new springtime in prosperity for the Jewish people. As we know, Jesus is the Messiah for whom they were waiting, but he didn’t conform to their expectations. Instead of closely guarding and reinforcing their racial boundaries, re-isolating the Jewish people from the non-Jewish races, Jesus broke through them: opening the door to fulfill what Isaiah had prophesied centuries before.
Just look at today’s Gospel reading: Jesus “withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon…” This was Gentile territory and we aren’t given much of a reason why he went there. Then we’re told that a Canaanite woman approaches him. There are many social taboos that are broken here: 1) that she was an unattended woman approaching a man; 2) she is a non-Jew speaking to a Jew; 3) this is all happening in public. In spite of all of this, she pleads for Jesus to heal her daughter. At first, Jesus tows the line: ignoring her, and then brushing her off as a non-Jew. Finally, he accedes and grants her what she asks because of her faith. In Isaiah, it says “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants … will be acceptable…” Jesus, recognizing that the covenant belongs to the Jews, but also that, through the Jews, God desires all peoples to come to himself, finds this woman “joined to the Lord” in faith and so grants her the benefits which belong properly to the people of the covenant.
Saint Paul, in another place, wrote “There is no longer Jew, nor Greek, man, nor woman, slave, nor free…” in the eyes of the Lord. Therefore, we know that, with Jesus, all who profess faith, “joining themselves to the Lord, ministering to him and loving the name of the Lord,” are able to receive the benefits that rightly belong to the Jewish people, the people of the covenant. And so we are here today.
My brothers and sisters, our Scriptures today ought to make clear to us that it is unacceptable for any of us to think that we are somehow a “chosen race”, privileged above all others (regardless of which race we belong to). The events of this past week, particularly the ugly events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, ought to reinforce this fact. Rather, we must be bearers of the Good News that God has made it so that all persons, regardless of race, now have access to his divine life: granted that they meet the strict conditions: that they join themselves to the Lord, minister to him, love the name of the Lord, and become his servants.
Friends, regardless of whether you were born and raised here or if “you ain’t from around here”, God desires you to be united to him in his Church, here in this place. If you aren’t on board with this plan then you have chosen not to serve the Lord and you risk separating yourselves from him. Nobody is saying, of course, that you have to stop being “Berries”, “Kings”, “Panthers”, or “Comets”, or that you have to stop being “Italian”, “German”, “Irish”, “Mexican”, “Guatemalan”, “Salvadorian”, “Honduran”, “Vietnamese”, or “Pilipino”. It does mean, however, that you have to see in this great diversity your brother, your sister, your co-heir to the kingdom won for us by Jesus; and that you have to accept your mission to go out from your own group to seek out those who still are not joined to us, so that they, too, might share in God’s divine life.
Brothers and sisters, this Eucharist that we share is not the exclusive reward for one privileged group, but rather God’s divine life, given for all. As we receive it today, let us be ready to bring our brothers and sisters to this table and thus bring God’s kingdom to fulfillment.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – August 19th & 20th, 2017