Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 14, 2005
Is 56:1,6-7; Rom 11:13-15, 29-32; Mt 15:21-28
1) In order to grasp the meaning of today’s readings, we first need to understand the three main stages of the salvation of the human race.
a. After the Fall, God called and prepared the Jews to receive his revelation and enter into a covenant of love with Him leading to redemption.
b. God the Father sent His Son, revelation incarnate, to bring that revelation, redemption and relationship with God to fulfillment. Jesus did it among the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” but not just for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but for us all.
c. After Jesus’ ascension, God the Father and God the Son sent God the Holy Spirit to help all of Jesus’ disciples to take the message and means of that salvation to the ends of the earth and the end of time.
2) Isaiah in the first reading prophesied that the Lord’s salvation would stretch beyond the Jews to every nation. “The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
3) In the second reading, St. Paul tells us the means by which God delivered that invitation: when many of the Jews rejected Jesus, tried to destroy him by destroying the Holy Temple of God, whom God the Father built that temple again in three days through the Resurrection (Jn 2:19; Mt 26:61). St. Paul says this rejection was the means by which God’s mercy was shown to all the Gentile nations, who are called to become a source of holy jealousy to the Jews and a means by which they will come to receive that same mercy.
4) Jesus, in the Gospel, shows us, in an initially disquieting way, how he seriously took these divinely-willed stages of salvation. In order temporarily to remove himself from the press of the crowds, Jesus had gone with the disciples into pagan territory for the first and only time in his public ministry. There, the pagan mother of a girl tormented by a demon — who must have been aware of his reputation as a miracle worker — came to ask him to cure her child. At first Jesus “did not answer her at all.” Then, when she persisted, he replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When she got down on her knees to beg, “Lord, help me,” Jesus, doubtless with a smile on a face and availing himself of the common language of the time by which Jews referred to pagans, said, “”It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” After her faithful retort that she would be satisfied with crumbs from Jesus — which are still more than sufficient to work a great miracle! — the Lord, deeply impressed by her faith, healed her daughter instantly from a distance.
5) Why did Jesus hesitate so long to help her? Many saints throughout the centuries have said that Jesus, by doing so, forced the woman to achieve a much greater level of persistent, prayerful faith. Jesus often doesn’t answer our petitions right away, because if he did, we’d risk becoming “spiritually spoiled.” Oftentimes he’s silent. At other times, he seems to say no. Sometimes he or others say or do something that might initially discourage us. But he wants us to persist with great trust in his power, like we saw in this woman, who received one of the greatest compliments Jesus ever gave, “Woman, great is your faith!” and who received as well that for which she had prayed so much.
6) While I think that that may be part of the reason why Jesus behaved as he did, I believe the main reason is tied to his expression, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It was not that he didn’t want to cast Satan out from pagan kids’ hearts, too, but he knew that that would inaugurate another stage of salvation history — namely the inexorable path to his death and the beginning of the mission of his mystical body the Church. We see a similar reaction in the miracle of Cana when another mother asked him to do something that he was not ready to do. His own mom told him that the young bride and groom were embarrassingly out of wine and intimated that Jesus work a miracle for them. Jesus responded, “Woman, what is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come” (Jn 2:4). When Mary persisted, Jesus worked the miracle, but he had hesitated, because his “hour” — Jesus’ expression for the beginning of his public ministry that would lead first to fame and second to his salvific death — would begin once he had worked that first public miracle. In a similar way, in Tyre and Sidon, Jesus’ working of a miracle for a non-Jew would push that hour much closer to its end. We see this clearly in St. John’s Gospel, when, just about two weeks before the Lord’s death, Greeks approached the apostle Philip asking to see Jesus. Once word got to the Lord that Greeks were wishing to see him, he replied, “Now has the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:23-24). Once the non-Jews were beginning to seek him, it would be the time for his glorification on the cross, when he died like a grain of wheat to be fruit the harvest of which would feed the entire world. This is the reason why Jesus hesitated, because even though he was willing to die, the timing in Tyre and Sidon was not right. He still had much to do in the second stage of salvation history before bringing it to fulfillment and inaugurating the third. As in Cana, however, because of the great faith of a mother, he allowed that hour to be anticipated.
7) After all of this explanation, it brings us to the application of what God’s trying to tell us in the readings to our lives. Jesus was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” but he was preparing his mystical body, the Church, after his Ascension, to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:18-20). He wanted to send us after the “lost sheep” of the house of the whole world and poured the Holy Spirit upon the Church on Pentecost to make that possible. Jesus, as I’ve said before and will say again, could have remained on earth to do everything himself, but he loved us enough to want to give us a share in his mission for the salvation of our brothers and sisters. With his Ascension and with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, he took the “training wheels” off of our discipleship. But we need to take our mission as seriously as he wants us to do. Whether people hear the Gospel or get into heaven depends to a large degree on whether we respond to God’s call.
8 ) Imagine if the first apostles had said to Jesus, when he gave them this mission, “No, Jesus, it’s someone else’s job. All I want to do is come to the temple or the synagogue on the Sabbath, pray a few times a day at home, and give a tithe of my income to God.” If they had, we would never have heard the Gospel. If millions after them had tried to pass the buck for passing on the faith to others, we may never have heard Jesus’ name. Thanks be to God, many of our parents and ancestors took their obligations for spreading Jesus’ salvific means and message seriously. Here in our own parish, we can think of the many priests, hundreds of religious women, and so many lay people who have sacrificed so much so that our Church has survived to this day. But for it to have as great a present and a future as it has had a past, each of us needs to step up to the plate.
9) During my years as a high school chaplain, I often used the following analogy: If Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and the richest man in the world, were going to be here next at St. Anthony’s next Sunday and was promising to a million dollars to everyone who came, what would you do? Would you call your family and friends and let them know so that they could receive that great gift? Would you let your next door neighbors know? Would you be a “Good Samaritan” and let even strangers know at the supermarket, at school and in other places? What do you think the odds would be that our church would be mobbed next week? — even if it were 20 degrees warmer than it is right now? I think we all agree that the Church would be packed to overflowing. Yet next week, someone far more important than Bill Gates will be here and he is offering to give everyone something far more valuable than all the money in the world — his own flesh and blood, the food that leads to everlasting life. The question for us is whether we’ll pick up the phone, send those notes and emails, and let strangers know of this great news, like we would if Bill Gates were going to be here. Jesus wants us to do so. And if we recognize the great gift of his word, and the unsurpassable blessing of the Eucharist, we will do far more than we would if all we were to receive would be a million bucks.
10) It’s always important for a priest to get very practical and not just stick at the level of comfortable generalities that are easier to let pass through the other ear. I would like to you think of TWO PEOPLE — members of your families, your friends, people who live close to you — who have been away from the practice of the faith. And now, in the name of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, I’m going to ask you, in his presence, to make the commitment to contact them this week and invite them to be with us next week. Call them if they like to speak on the phone. Pay them a visit. If you’re nervous, write a note, put your heart in it, and mail it. Just in some way, make the effort to try to take the message and means of Christ’s salvation to them. Know that Jesus wouldn’t be calling YOU to be his evangelizers unless he trusted you enough to accomplish the task, and unless he were prepared to give you everything you’ll need to accomplish it. The Holy Spirit will be with you. Jesus is counting on you — and the two people you’ve called to mind may not end up being saved, may not end up going to heaven, unless you, with the Holy Spirit, act. Please don’t put it off.
11) If we all do this, we’ll see the difference next week. If we keep doing it, week by week, this Church will start to become mobbed with people coming to receive the greatest treasure in the whole world. This is the way that this beautiful temple will become a house of prayer not just for a few of us, but for all people, including for those lost sheep whom the Lord Jesus is sending us out in his name to bring back to him. May the Lord strengthen us for this urgent mission through the Eucharist we’re about to receive!