20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Is, 56:7
There are numerous passages already in the Old Testament that point to the universal call to salvation. Israel is God’s chosen people, but the plan of salvation that is to be worked out through Israel is inclusive of the whole human race. Genesis teaches that all men are made in the image and likeness of God, and the promise of a Redeemer after the fall is likewise to be understood as directed to all the descendents of our first parents. Since all men are created in God’s image and likeness, we cannot doubt that God loves all who are created in the divine image and that his loving promise of redemption must be extended to the whole of humanity. This truth is confirmed when God promises Abraham “And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” (Gen. 22:18)
Likewise in the prophets, and especially in Isaiah, revelation points to the universal scope of the work of the future Redeemer. God will make the Messiah a light to the nations because it is too little a thing for him to be just a savior for Israel, indeed, God says “my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Is. 49.6) And again, “The time comes that I will gather all nations and languages, and they will come, and will see my glory.” The biblical references are overwhelming that foresee that the Christ will be a savior for all the nations. Jesus fulfills those hopes.
We see in today’s Gospel the love and compassion of God for the gentiles, who until Christ live in deep darkness. It is a sign of the times when he grants a miracle to a pagan woman who is seeking help for her poor daughter. Not only does he grant her the miracle, but he publicly declares that she has great faith: “O woman, great is your faith!” Jesus personally has a mission only to the children of Israel, though his apostles will one day be sent to the Gentiles to invite them also into the kingdom. This pagan woman calls him “Lord” and “Son of David,” and one has to wonder just how deep her faith actually was to speak in that way. But we see that her faith in his divine power, at least, is great enough for her to withstand his initial rebuff, and she stands her ground and at last wins his heart. She too is invited into the kingdom, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah in today’s first reading: “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The interaction between Jesus and this pagan woman is wonderful display of how God interacts with the people of all nations. Jesus may seem cruel at first sight for not responding positively to her appeal for help. Indeed he could even be seen as harsh when saying “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” But the Lord, and Son of David is only giving her an opportunity to display the strength of her faith, which he already sees in her heart. How many of us would have the faith to absorb that blow and persist like she did? How many of us might have walked away at that point and had nothing more to do with this man from Nazareth, like the people who found his teaching on the Eucharist too hard to take?
Whenever I read this Gospel, it reminds me of Catholics who say they left the Church years ago because Father so-in-so said something they found insulting. How little faith there is revealed by such a decision. But this wonderful woman shows that she has great faith by persevering in true humility. She does not reprimand the Lord for his statement about not giving the children’s food to dogs. She shows both her faith and her wit by her reply that even the dogs eat the scraps from their master’s table! She replies to Jesus by recognizing once again that He is indeed the Lord, the Master, but she begs for the scraps from his table for her daughter. What a woman! You almost want to say “touché!” Jesus responds with mercy. This amazing woman will not allow a snub or even an insult to her deflect her from her hope to have Jesus deliver her daughter from the power of Satan. Isn’t that what salvation really entails, for any of us.
So what are we to make of this “faith” that Jesus attributes to her. Likely she did not yet believe that he was God, but she clearly believed he had divine power to save her daughter, and that is the beginning of saving faith. Her whole approach makes it clear that she already believed in God, and she already believed that somehow Jesus was blessed with divine power. Her faith may have been shrouded in the darkness of the world deprived of the light of Christ, but it was nonetheless a genuine faith, and Jesus says it was great, just as he once praised the Roman Centurion for his great faith. Both of these pagans already believe in Jesus to some degree, and in His Godhead at least implicitly. We can extend that to a likelihood that they are both seeking to love and obey God to the best of their lights.
It was not their fault they were not born Jews, just as it is not the fault of today’s pagans and infidels if they were not born into Christian families. God loves them and will, in his own way, offer them a path to salvation, either bringing them into the Church or in some other way known only to God. And if they respond to his grace and seek to follow the light of God’s truth and law written in their souls, they too will take their place in the kingdom in God’s time and in God’s way. That is, we can be sure that if they follow the light of conscience and God’s natural law, they are already following Christ who is the light of the world, even before he becomes the incarnate light of the world.
Thus Christianity has this great broadness to its mission. It strives to convert the whole world because it believes absolutely that Jesus Christ is the light of the world and the redeemer of mankind, that he truly dies to make salvation possible for all mankind. It also believes that what she the Church possesses, the light of truth and the grace of freedom, is meant for all mankind, and that this truth and grace will make it easier for all to achieve their salvation and to deepen and perfect their humanity on earth. Moreover, Holy Mother Church does not despair even of those that cannot be reached by the Gospel through no fault of their own. God has his way of extending the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ to them also, if they but seek the light that God has planted in their own hearts and souls, the light of conscience and natural faith, which is also light coming from God.
This is the Church’s great faith, that the Gospel and the grace of Jesus Christ are the true light and power that brings salvation and authentic freedom and true dignity to each and every man and to the nations. Our prayer and our efforts are directed to this, that all nations and peoples may come one day to rejoice in this light and grace, and come to know the true freedom of the children of God. That is always in our prayers, and that is the true motive behind the universal mission of the Church.