20th Sunday of the Year, Modern

Lectionary 118

The timeliness of today’s scripture readings is all the more striking given that they were not hastily arranged in the past couple of years when immigration and the presence of “foreigners” in the U.S. have been a lively political concern, but rather they have stood together as readings for nearly half a century since the Lectionary was revised in 1969. The issue of the rights of foreigners or migrants within a nation was a controversial one in biblical times and so it is no surprise that it is still controversial today.

The first reading comes from the opening of what us often called “third Isaiah”, representing the third major section of that lengthy prophetic book. In the light of the return from the Babylonian exile, the prophet rejoices in his own salvation and ability to freely worship the Lord at long last, and desires that this joy be shared by all who believe in the Lord. This may seem like a natural wish but it is actually an expression of a deep and mature understanding of the relationship between God and man, and Israel’s place in that relationship.

Speaking the word of the Lord Isaiah says: “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord…I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:1, 7). To feel the impact of these verses we must recall that the Temple in Jerusalem was not always considered a house of prayer for all nations, nor even for all Israelites. At times in the history of Israel those who were physically afflicted in various ways were not allowed into the Temple (see 2 Sam 5:8 and Matt 21:14), nor were foreigners admitted beyond the “outer court”. Women were not allowed full access to the Temple either—but they could enter the outer court where the Temple treasury was located (see Mark 12:41-44).

With this picture in mind the power of Isaiah’s words becomes clear: all peoples who truly sought the Lord and abided by his covenant could freely worship in the Temple, and more importantly could be counted among those redeemed by God. The gentile nations were thus grafted onto the ancient rootstock of Israel and the heritage of salvation that was first made known through Israel was opened to all who believed and remained faithful to the Lord. For his part the Psalmist affirms this when he cries out in today’s responsorial: “O God, let all the nations praise you!” (Ps 67:2). Saint Paul adds his voice to the chorus by reminding his followers that while the people of Israel had not all received Jesus as Lord, it was through them that the gates of redemption were opened to the world, and on account of this God would redeem them in his own good time and manner, for as we hear in the second reading “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29).

The Gospel provides a final note to this brief reflection on the possibility of salvation for people of all nations. There Jesus admires the faith of the Canaanite woman, who was not only a foreigner but was from a nation that was among Israel’s bitterest traditional enemies. The Lord tested her sharply before commending her for her belief in him: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matt 15:28). The Canaanite woman saw her daughter healed that day: may we ask our Lord to heal us of any trace of a selfish mind or a cold heart, and rejoice in the company of the Lord together with all his faithful ones—friend and foreigner alike.

Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.