Who is invited to the Kingdom of God?
By Tim Irwin
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time/Aug. 16
Isaiah 56:1,6-7; Psalm 67:2-3,5,6,8; Romans 11:13-15,29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
A subtle tension permeates the Gospel according to St. Matthew concerning to whom the invitation to enter the Kingdom of God is directed. The Children of Israel certainly top the list of invitees, but since the 11th chapter of this Gospel, their response has been less than enthusiastic. Jesus reproaches the towns where most of his miracles had been performed, because the residents failed to repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:21-22)
This week’s Gospel recounts Jesus’s visit to the region of Tyre and Sidon and his dramatic encounter with a Canaanite woman whose faith surpasses anything seen in the aforementioned towns. Just as Jesus and his disciples arrive, the Canaanite woman calls out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Calling him Son of David suggests that she knows about the messianic promise made to the Children of Israel and believes that Jesus is the promised messiah. This is incredible in that she is not a Jew and Jesus had yet to perform a miracle in the district that might have revealed his messiahship. Interestingly, Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t explain why she recognized Jesus as the messiah.
IT’S ALL ABOUT FAITH
Jesus silently ignores her. Her plea intensifies and the disciples become uncomfortable, perhaps because unrelated men and women typically didn’t speak to each other in public. They ask Jesus to “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” Jesus breaks his silence: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But this mom just won’t take no for an answer.
True faith in Jesus leads to an invitation to be blessed. It is all about faith.
She approaches Jesus, does him homage and says, “Lord, help me!” She calls him “lord” and not “teacher” as the doubtful Pharisees had addressed him when requesting a sign (Matthew 13:38). Considering the popular view we have of Jesus these days, his answer may seem shocking, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Talk about politically incorrect. And yet even after enduring an ego-bruising ethnic slur, this mother does not abandon her daughter to the torment of a demon.
The Canaanite woman pleads, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” And that does it. Jesus is moved by her unabashed persistence. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Jesus blessed the Canaanite woman by granting her prayer. The demon was immediately cast out of her daughter.
So, how does Matthew resolve that subtle tension concerning who is and is not invited into the Kingdom of God? True faith in Jesus leads to an invitation to be blessed. It is all about faith. Sometimes, life has a way of crushing our faith and draining our souls of hope. As the Canaanite woman so vividly illustrates, when we place our faith in the Lord, our hope will be renewed. When we pray as she prayed with a commitment born out of faith in Jesus and love for another, we will also be blessed.
Being a follower of Jesus is a struggle because the Lord is inviting us to be more other-centered and less self-centered just like the Canaanite woman. If only we can persist in this struggle as she did, perhaps one day the Lord will say to us, “O how great is your faith!”
Tim Irwin teaches theology and philosophy at Notre Dame High School in Peoria. He is a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Morton.