20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

The Necessity of Faith
(Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28)
Introduction to Mass
The Old Testament looked forward to a time when Godís salvation would embrace the whole human race. The readings this Sunday show how that time arrived with the appearance of Christ. But salvation isnít available without faith or cooperation on our part, and Jesusí encounter with a quick-witted Canaanite woman illustrates that fact.
To begin Mass we acknowledge the weakness, often, of our own faith and we ask God for his pardon and strength.
Itís difficult to grasp properly the meaning of the first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, without knowing a bit about the general background.
The southern kingdom of Judah had been invaded by the Babylonians. The country had been destroyed and a huge section of the population deported. The result was that strong feelings of national identity and solidarity had grown up, as a sort of defence mechanism, and even a kind of racial and religious chauvinism. Foreign invasion made the Jews feel even more strongly that they were the Chosen People, excluding all others.
It was a feeling that ran counter to another thread that ran through the Old Testament: the conviction that all people had been created by God and that in the fullness of time God's reach would stretch everywhere and that everyone would acknowledge the one true God.
In the early stages of God's dealing with humanity the Jewish people had a special role as the vehicle of God and God's ways. But in the future, Isaiah says, Godís saving activity wonít be confined within particular racial or geographical boundaries. He'll be accessible to everyone and his house ďwill be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.Ē
When we come to the second reading, St. Paul is writing against the background of Jesus' resurrection, and the founding of the new Christian community. The time that Isaiah looked forward to has arrived. Salvation has been opened up to everyone and St. Paul's prayer is that eventually the Jews will acknowledge Jesus as the person who took God's plans forward and brought about this new stage in God's plan. Paul argued passionately that belief in Christ couldn't remain as a movement within the Jewish people alone, but had to be taken out beyond the confines of Israel.
With the gospel passage we get the same theme, concentrating on an incident in Jesus' own ministry. What happens is straightforward enough. Jesus' original resistance to the woman's request is broken down by her persistence, her thick skin and her sense of humour. She refuses to be offended by Jesus' rude remarks and Jesus takes her attitude as a sign of faith, a sign that she's disposed in a positive way to what Jesus represents.
And to my mind there are two ways this incident can enlarge our understanding of the gospel message as a whole.
One is that Jesus didn't always react in the way that people expected. Or maybe, more to the point, he didn't always react in a way that corresponds to our - often quite wishy-washy - notions of what he was like.
Some scripture commentators think that it's unlikely Jesus would give such an offensive answer to somebody that had asked him for help. Maybe the original incident was embroidered a bit by the early Christian communities.
My own interpretation of the passage would be that Jesus was someone who was gifted at reading people's characters, even when he'd only had a superficial contact with them. Jesus knew when the best way to approach someone was with gentleness and sensitivity, and he knew when it was best to be a bit more forceful and confrontational. Some people pull back from a sharp remark, but other people rise to it and they come back with some blunt speaking themselves. This was how the Canaanite woman reacted. Jesus had made an accurate judgement about her character.
But the more important lesson we might draw from Jesusí initial declaration that the woman isnít entitled to any help from him, concerns the whole issue of what qualifies a person, if I can put it that way, for faith in God. What are the deciding factors for membership of God's Kingdom?
In his own ministry Jesus accepted that many people would listen to what he had to say and then decide not to become a follower. He never seemed to show any resentment of the fact that even many of the people he healed went on their way without their encounter with him having brought about any great transformation.
On the other hand when people did respond Jesus emphasised that they were embarking on a journey that would be costly and that it would involve demands and sacrifices.
In our own circumstances, now, the Church finds itself in the situation of walking a tightrope between being sensitive to people who are outside the boundaries of faith in God, who might have a very weak notion of what the whole Christian option is about, and on the other hand having the duty to protect the integrity of the Church's message and practices and so on.
To give one obvious example: out of all the baptisms that take place in Church, very few of the families involved actually treat the gospel message like the treasure in the field, or the pearl of great price. As long as the discussion is centred on the video, the clothes, the guest list, the party afterwards, everyone is happy.
When the talk turns to God, or the meaning of the sacrament of baptism - then peopleís eyes start to glaze over and weíre into foreign territory. And the same applies to many other aspects of the Church's ministry.
In this situation, what I'd take from this Sundayís readings is that although God's offer of salvation is available to everyone, not everyone takes him up on it. Jesus himself took non-belief seriously. He didn't try to explain it away or play it down, and in certain circumstances he actually withheld his help until there was a demonstration of the quality of the person's faith.
In our circumstances, what this episode shows is that we're not being unfaithful to Christ's own methods if we look for at least some signs of openness to the content of the gospel message before we confer ceremonies or perform services which only make sense when a minimum of Christian commitment is present.
At the same time it shows that if there isn't a certain level of attraction to the values and the outlook of the gospel, then there isn't any genuinely salvific encounter with God taking place, whatever outwards gestures and symbols are made. The Churchís rituals and pastoral services are meaningless outside the context of faith.
Those are the conclusions we can draw for our own pastoral practice from this instance of Jesus declining to give someone what she wants until she shows some sign of recognising who, and what, he is.