Father Donald Senior, CP

Aug. 16: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Crossing boundaries

Is 56:1, 6-7; Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8; Rom 11:13-15, 29-32; Mt 15:21-28

No matter what our own political leanings may be, it is self-evident that the challenge of crossing boundaries is at the heart of many of the issues facing our country. Under what conditions should immigrants be let into our country? How do we navigate the economic boundaries between rich and poor and those in between? How do we deal with deep-seated racial and ethnic differences? Even religious boundaries are in play as surges in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have been revealed.

The challenge of crossing boundaries runs throughout the Bible and is on display in the readings for this Sunday. For much of its history, Israel was, understandably, conscious of its unique status as God’s chosen people. But throughout the Bible there are also tendencies to what we could call “universalism” — the realization that the God of Israel was also the God of the nations. 

Accordingly, the fate of the Gentiles was a recurring question. We hear it today in the reading from the prophet Isaiah, where concern for the “nations” is strong. In this portion, the prophet proclaims God’s promise that the “foreigners” who are just and good will be brought “to my holy mountain and made joyful in my house of prayer.” Their offerings and sacrifices will be welcomed, and they will be at home in “my house [that] shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

The refrain of responsorial Psalm 67 proclaims the same boundary-breaking spirit. “God, let all the nations praise you!” The psalm repeats this motif: “So may your way be known upon earth; among all nations, your salvation.” “May the nations be glad and exult because you rule the peoples in equity; the nations on the earth you guide.” “May all the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you! May God bless us, and may all the ends of the earth fear him!”

Few Gospel passages are more explicit about the challenge of crossing boundaries than the story of the Canaanite woman. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ public ministry confines him mainly to the territory of Israel, the immediate object of his mission. 

As in the story today, Jesus declares more than once that his God-given mission is “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But in this instance, when Jesus approaches the northern border of Israel with that of Tyre and Sidon (present day Lebanon), things change. A gentile woman crosses over the border and pleads with Jesus to heal her ill daughter. 

At first Jesus refuses even to talk with her and then rebuffs her pleas, citing his mission only to Israel. Finally, in seemingly harsh words, he tells her, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (The actual term in Greek is “puppies,” softening the insult). But the mother of this sick child will not be thwarted: “Please, Lord, for even the puppies eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

At last, her unstoppable faith overwhelms Jesus’ hesitations: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed.

Matthew tells this story for a Jewish Christian community that was struggling to accept Gentile converts on an even basis with Jews. As we know from Paul’s letters and other New Testament writings, the early Jewish Christians had some difficulty opening their minds and hearts to outsiders. 

In this story, Matthew portrays Jesus himself — who was steeped in his cherished Jewish heritage — overcoming his initial hesitation under the impact of this Gentile woman’s faith. She, too, was a child of God and the object of God’s healing love.

The Scriptures do not solve all the political and economic challenges we face as a country today. Questions of identity and culture remain complex. But there is no doubt that our Christian faith views all of us as daughters and sons of God, and therefore God’s Word inspires us to risk moving in the direction of crossing boundaries and accepting those who may be different from us.



  • scripture