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August 20 2017 (A) Twentieth Sunday of the Year

  1. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
  2. Reflection & Dialogue: All are welcome within the Church, but in keeping with the terms of the covenant.

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7). I will bring foreigners to my holy mountain. In this passage, we have the beginning of a new collection of prophecies concerning Israel’s future. Some scholars call this collection (in Isaiah chapters 56-66) “Third Isaiah”. The background to today’s reading is apparently post-exilic Jerusalem, with reference to the Temple and sacrifices there. The theme of this passage is universalistic; in fact, it is probably the most universalistic passage in the entire Old Testament with regard to the acceptance as members of the people of God persons who were refused such membership according to the then current Jewish legislation (Deuteronomy 23:1-9), that is foreigners and eunuchs. To appreciate the message of the passages read in this liturgical reading more fully, it is best pay attention to the verses omitted from the passage 56:1-7. The text begins with a general principle, as the voice of God addresses his people. A new age is presented as dawning, one in which the cooperation of God’s people with their God is required: his people are to maintain justice and do what is right, for soon God’s salvation will come and his deliverance will be revealed. In this new age two things are required: to keep the sabbath and refrain from doing any evil. Then the representatives of two groups are introduced: the foreigner joined to the Lord and the eunuch. The former is made to say that the Lord will surely separate him from his (the Lord’s) people, while the eunuch, who cannot father children, says: “I am just a dry tree”. God replies to both groups. Only two things are required of then: to keep the sabbath and to hold fast to God’s covenant, which implicitly implies circumcision, the sign of the covenant. There is question of the becoming proselytes. With regard to the eunuchs, God promises to give them “a monument and a name” (in Hebrew, in which the original text was written, yad va-shem) in his house (Temple), something better than sons and daughters, together with an everlasting name. In like manner with regard to the foreigners, who are faithful to the sabbath and the covenant. God will bring them to his holy mountain, and make them joyful in his house of prayer, and their burnt offering and sacrifices will be accepted on his altar, since, as God solemnly declares, his house (the Temple) shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. This divine vision of the new age was not fulfilled during the days of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 A.D. Jesus recalls God’s declaration on the issue during his cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:13).

With regard to the Hebrew words yad va-shem, these have been chosen as the title for the commemoration, and the commemorative memorial, of the Jewish holocaust.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 66[67]). Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.

Second Reading (Romans 11:13-15, 29-32). With Israel, God never takes back his gifts or revokes his choice. The greater part of this chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Romans is on the Jews’ refusal to accept Christ and Paul’s disappointment at this. Paul was a Jew through and through and he now reflects on the great success of his own ministry to the gentiles, and compares this with the small number of his own Jewish people who accepted Jesus. Paul cautions the members of the Roman Christian church against taking pride in their own election as Christians and the rejection of the Jews. The passages in today’s reading are taken from this lengthy chapter.

In the first section of today’s reading Paul addresses the Roman recipients of his letter as pagans, gentiles, and reminds them that he is proud of his ministry to the gentiles as he believes it will serve to make his fellow Jews envious of this success, and have some of them al least convert to Christ, for their salvation.

Immediately after this he makes a further point, by asking a question and making a comparison: since the Jews’ refusal to believe in Christ, their rejection as he calls it, meant the success of the Christian mission and the reconciliation of the world with God, an immense boon, he ask what will their acceptance back, after this rejection, be? Paul is convinced that this acceptance back of his own people will take place and it will mean nothing less than “life from the dead”. It is not quite clear what Paul has in mind by this life from the dead. One interpretation is that he has in mind the resurrection from the dead, the general resurrection at the end of time. This interpretation has not received general acceptance. Another possibility is that this restoration of Israel, or of part of it, its acceptance back, will far outweigh the initial boon at the first acceptance of Christ (by non-Jews and others) at the preaching of Paul and others. It can be called new life from the dead.

Paul, as already said, is quite certain of this final acceptance back and reconciliation of Israel. As he puts it, with regard to Israel Israel, God never takes back his gifts or revokes his choice

The Gospel (Matthew 15:21-28). Woman, you have great faith. When sending the Twelve Apostles out on their mission Jesus instructed them to go nowhere among the Gentiles but rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:5-6). None the less, in this reading we see a certain opening towards a Gentile mission, in the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon. We are not given any background information on this episode, nor why the pagan woman from that district addressed Jesus as “Son of David”. At first Jesus gives no reply to her request, but when the disciples urged him to send her away, Jesus answers that he is sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. When the woman persists in her plea for help, Jesus answered that it was not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs (or: “house-dogs”). No offence was intended by, or taken from, the reference to dogs. It was possibly an accepted term for non-Jews in certain contexts. The woman admitted the favoured position of Israel, and Jesus praised the great faith of this good pagan. Her daughter was healed.

Reflection & Dialogue: All are welcome within the Church, but in keeping with the terms of the covenant

In the first reading, there was mention of a new age for the people of God, with an opening to foreigners and others to the house of God, a house of prayer for all peoples, but presupposing their good works and their fidelity to the covenant. In the parable on the wedding banquet and the wedding garment (Matthew 22:1-14), when the invitation to the wedding banquet was not accepted the king sent his servants who gathered from the streets the good and the bad, so that the wedding hall was filled with guests. Then when the king saw that there was one not wearing a wedding robe he had him cast out. The lesson to be drawn from this is that there are conditions attached to the open invitation to the messianic feast, here on earth to membership of the church. There has been, and will be, a certain tension between the invitation to membership of the Church, the House of God, and the demands arising from the covenant with God and the mission of the Church. According the Christ himself, his followers are intended to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and the early Church took this very seriously in her teaching and practice.

From this there arose, and still arises for the Church, the question as to how to combine fidelity to Christ’s teaching and her own mission and failings arising from human weakness. Matthew’s own community was severe enough on the person who refused to make amends with one of his fellow Christians – by exclusion from the community. Paul took an equally severe attitude towards a Christian in Corinth guilty of marital misconduct. This is a problem that will always be with us, arising from the call of the Church by Christ to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and behaviour running contrary to this.

There has been a long history of the Church in this matter, with, for a long period, heavy penalties for the errant. The problem is currently being discussed in the Church, especially with regard to the question of Holy Communion for divorced and remarried persons, and as regards to admission of certain non-Catholics to Holy Communion. Fundamentally it is a question of how reconcile the infinite mercy of God with fidelity to the demands of the covenant and Christ’s message for the world. One can only pray that a satisfactory solution will be found.