Scripture reflections for Aug. 20, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Aug. 20, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Is 56:1, 6-7

Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8

Rom 11:13-15, 29-32

Mt 15:21-28

At first blush, you can't help but wonder: what kind of Jesus is this?

The Jesus in this Gospel isn't the comforting figure preaching love and mercy, with a light yoke and an easy burden and a kind word for the sick or the blind.

Instead, he seems to be a figure with a hard heart and a cold attitude. He sounds, in fact, like a bigot. He lectures a Canaanite woman, telling her that his mission was not meant for her. When she begs a miracle for her tormented daughter, he snaps back: "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs."

Is he serious?

Undoubtedly -- but not in the way we may think. What follows carries a powerful lesson for the apostles and for all of us.

Here, Jesus doesn't respond to the Canaanite woman right away. He waits to see what the apostles will do. Finally, they speak up. "Send her away," they complain, "for she keeps calling after us."

That's exactly what he needed. They hand the rabbi an opening and he seizes it.

At first, Jesus takes their side. He shows indifference, even disdain, for The Other. He doesn't want to be bothered by a woman who is not a Jew. He refers to her and her kind as an animal -- which may be what some of his followers are thinking. But she responds: "Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."

"O woman," Jesus replies, "Great is your faith!" With that, her daughter is healed.

The apostles may have been shocked at this turn of events. But we shouldn't be. Jesus surely knew well the words from Isaiah that we hear in this Sunday's first reading:

"The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord ... them I will bring to my holy mountain. My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."

And he certainly whispered in prayer countless times these words of the psalmist:

"May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you!"

He understood (in a way the apostles evidently did not) that his mission was for all who sought God with a sincere heart. The author of this Gospel (composed at a time when Gentile Christians were growing in number) seized on this episode to make a powerful point about inclusion and welcome.

The Jesus we meet in this passage uses a kind of reverse psychology to pose a challenge to his followers and by extension to every one of us. He shows that prejudice and exclusion have no place in the Christian heart.

He leaves us with pressing questions.

-- Who are the Canaanite women in our world today?

-- Who are the ones in our lives who "keep calling after us"?

-- Who are The Others we would prefer to dismiss or disregard?

-- Who are the "foreigners" we'd prefer to ignore?

The wisdom from Isaiah should haunt us all. "My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples." Foreigners are not to be shunned, cast out, or excluded.

Put another way: all are welcome.

The Sunday's scripture readings ask us to set aside our biases, to break down walls, to consider people not by their origins or their backgrounds and to see them as Jesus did: as people seeking God in good faith.

At a moment when so much of the world is divided and polarized -- even, regrettably, within the walls of our churches -- the readings this Sunday call us to consider others with the sympathetic heart of Christ.

The Gospel dares us to act and think differently: to consider those who are not like us; to listen to those we'd rather ignore; to give people who are mistreated a measure of dignity.

What kind of Jesus do we meet in this Gospel?

He is the one we know so well -- the one who sees what really matters, who teaches us what we need to learn and who manages to turn even the most unlikely encounter into a miracle.

- Deacon Greg Kandra is an award-winning author and journalist, and creator of the blog, "The Deacon's Bench."