Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 16, 2020
Saint Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Isaiah 56:1,6-7
Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28

We are each familiar with the story from the Book of Exodus of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness on their escape from Egypt towards the land promised them by God. In that story we hear about how God provides manna from heaven to sustain the Israelites and to keep them on their journey without fear of starving. The Israelites soon become bored with the bread that has come down from heaven — the manna, and they complain because they begin to see themselves as entitled to it. Instead of receiving the manna as a gift from God, they begin to merely see it as something that falls from the sky. The relationship initiated by God with the Israelites is the heart of their identity — an identity beyond their racial, ethnic, or familial differences with others.

Many of the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ time had become more focused on ritual practices that distinguished them externally from other peoples than on the relationship that God has initiated with them in the Covenant that should be the heart of their practices and rituals. Because of this, they miss out on their identity as God’s chosen people being prepared to receive their Savior promised to them by God. They gradually close themselves off from God and begin seeing their identity as based on religious practices and racial similarities as distinct from the Canaanites and the Gentiles.

We read from the Book of Isaiah today, “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to Him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming His servants — all who keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, I will bring them to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer.” These words of Isaiah were inspired by God to remind His chosen people that their election by God was not directed towards excluding other people but rather that they cooperate with Him as servants for bringing about the salvation of all people in the world.

In today’s Gospel, it seems that Jesus’ disciples have a problem recognizing this universal mission of Jesus as the Messiah for all people as they counsel Him to send the Canaanite woman away. Yet, she perseveres and grows in faith and her realization of Jesus’ full identity as not only the Messiah but also as the Son of God who is worthy of worship.

The Canaanite woman begins her conversation with Jesus by simply asking Him to give her what she wants. She initially recognizes in Him only as someone who is useful to getting what she wants — the important and urgent need of the recovery of her daughter. She desperately wants Him to give her what she wants.

Jesus first responds to her in silence because He is not satisfied with her settling to see Him only as someone who is useful; the disciples tell Jesus to get rid of her; she is referred to as a dog — that is, like the family pet that begs and comes to the table out of appetite — seeking only a treat and not love. Jesus wishes to offer her love and she grows in that realization by persevering in the conversation with him, so she doesn’t settle for simple utility.

After each point in the ongoing conversation with Jesus, she decides to persevere and to respond to His invitation and not set her sights too low by simply wanting Jesus to give her a treat. Frequently, our assessment of our own needs on our own terms is in fact simply our preferences of convenience. Sometimes all we want from Jesus is for Him to give us a treat. We can even see our participation in the Eucharist as simply an opportunity to “go to communion” as if the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ were simply a treat or “scraps that fall from the table” to which I am entitled to have on my own terms assessed without relationship and responsibility to love God and neighbor as Christ has shown us to do.

At times, we are too short sighted in that we assess our needs through the scope of this world and ignore that our Baptism and the corresponding relationship initiated by Christ with us and among us, is a relationship that has destined us for eternal glory and that does not simply begin after death. When we do this, we only see Christ as useful but not as our Savior or even our friend. Like the disciples in today’s Gospel, we can benefit from the witness of the Canaanite woman. Rather than seeking only a temporary cure thereby relegating her daughter to a world of poverty, sickness, and death, lorded over by the powerful and capricious, the Canaanite woman through her growing faith in Jesus gains for her daughter both lasting healing and the realization that they live in a world governed by a Divine Lord who cares for them and who is as loving as He is powerful.

In our second reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, he tells the Gentiles, to whom he has been sent for their salvation, that he boasts about them to inspire his fellow Jews to listen to the Gospel with the same ears of faith that it might take root in their lives with the fulfillment of their identity as God’s chosen people as the Gospel has begun to blossom in the lives of the Gentiles. He mentions that the Gentiles were once strangers to God, but now God has bestowed His grace on the Gentiles just as Isaiah had prophesied. In so doing, Saint Paul reminds the Gentiles of his time, and us today, that God’s gifts are irrevocable so we should not settle for anything less than what God offers us completely in Christ through our Baptism and ongoing sacramental life. Not only are these gifts irrevocable, they are intended for everybody and not simply one exclusive group. This requires our ongoing conversation of prayer with Jesus just as the ongoing conversation of the Canaanite woman with Jesus transformed her from being simply a bystander to becoming a full witness to Christ’s saving works.

This week, I ask you to join me in spending some time each day in conversation with Jesus, just as the Canaanite woman did. Ask Jesus for the willingness on our part to embrace our Catholic identity initiated by Him in His gift of the Holy Spirit to us in Baptism, and not to define ourselves as Catholics simply by external and cultural differences from people of other faiths. Ask Jesus for the grace to receive the Eucharist as a gift with gratitude and becoming more conscious that this gift requires a responsibility of charity and service to others on our part — just as the Canaanite woman sought healing for her daughter. Finally, ask Jesus for the willingness on our part not to settle for scraps that fall from the table but to be prepared spiritually and morally to be seated with others at the place He has prepared for us on His terms here at this altar and at His eternal banquet table in heaven.

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