Words on the Word

20. Sunday A

Isaiah 56:1, 6-7: Foreigners – these I will bring to my holy mountain
Romans 11:3-5, 29-32: I have been sent to the pagans as their apostle. 
Matthew 15:21-28: But he answered her not a word.

In his account of the Passion of our Lord, the Evangelist Matthew says that when Jesus cried with a loud voice and breathed his last the curtain of the temple ‘was torn in two, from top to bottom’ (27.50f.). That curtain delimited the temple’s most sacred precinct, the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant, throne of God’s earthly presence, resided. The tearing of the curtain signified the letting-loose of that presence. Not that it had ever been anyone’s prisoner, except in the imagination of believers.

Think of another prophet, Ezekiel (especially chapters 8-10), who shows us the freedom God has to leave his temple when the cult performed within it no longer represents true worship, no longer transforms people’s hearts and minds.

Still, don’t we all tend, in one way or another, to shut God into an enclosure of our making? This enclosure may be a particular notion of what the Church should be like, a particular liturgical form, a particular devotion — we make the spaces ever smaller.

God meanwhile is God ‘of all creation’ as the priest says at the offertory, when he places bread and wine on the altar.

‘Do not harden, do not shut your heart!’ says the Lord in the Psalm (Psalm 94/95) with which the Church begins each day’s Divine Office. We need the reminder. For hearts wounded by sin, closure is the default movement – our heart must learn to reopen like an oyster to discover, and reveal, the pearl within, the pearl of great price. The tearing of the temple curtain symbolises the resolve of conversion by which we reaffirm our option for what is great, universal, and whole.

Today’s Gospel shows us this process at work in the heart of Christ, that is, in the Sacred Heart. How can it be possible? Is Christ not, precisely, God, God ‘of all creation’? What sort of awakening or opening could he need?

We touch, here, a mystery requiring us to exercise great caution. Yes, of course, Christ is truly ‘God from God’. The Church affirms this truth with authority. At the same time, though, he ‘was incarnate of the Virgin Mary’ and became truly man. As man he knew a cultural horizon conditioned by his time’s presuppositions. He supremely experienced that ‘broadening of the heart’ which St Benedict presents as as the primary task of monks, in as much as his human heart had to acquire the dimensions of his divine, all-embracing love.

When he said to the Canaanite woman, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel’, he repeated the general conviction of first-century Judaism, which saw itself as an enclave apart, uniquely favoured and charged with a unique responsibly: that of preparing the accomplishment of God’s plan and the moment at the end of time, but not before, when all peoples of the earth would know that the Lord is good.

The great revolution of the New Testament is to show that this segregation no longer obtains, that the promise made to Abraham is fulfilled at the present time. Christ lived through this revolution in his own heart. By virtue of compassion, love divine conquered human limitation, opening it and transforming it. A grieving mother prostrate at his feet, suffering for her child, oppressed by evil, caused the sanctuary curtain to tear in the heart of Christ. The glory of his mercy bursts forth from its sanctuary, bearing healing in its wings.

As a result the world changed.

The reconciliation of the pagan peoples of which Paul speaks in his Letter to the Romans was enacted at this moment, in the region of Tyre and Sidon, in response to the tenacity and faith of a mum in pain.

This story challenges us to pray with the persistence of the Canaanite woman. But that is not all. It challenges us, too, to examine the Catholicity of our heart. In old age, St Paul summed up the Good News to his spiritual son, the young bishop Timothy, writing, ‘God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim 2.4). Do I desire the same? Is my desire at God’s level? Or have I a secret preference for selective redemption, leading me to regard certain brothers and sisters in humanity with defiance and contempt? What would my own attitude be faced with the prayer of the Canaanite woman?

Given the many crises through which we are passing at the present time – political, ecological, cultural and ecclesial crises — it is normal that Christians club together in small groups. We all need to find support and encouragement somewhere, to gather round particular wells from which we can draw living water. Let us take care, however, to submit our desire and need for security to the judgement of God’s universal charity. Let us keep alive that greater thirst, the thirst to see all humanity saved and come to knowledge of the truth.

To be a Catholic is to be seated at a table at which a place is set for everyone, conscious that no merit of my own assures my own place — that I am wanted and invited by God’s free gift and grace. May our hearts grow to attain the dimensions of the Heart of God, the source of eternal, boundless mercy, freedom, and joy. Amen.


The woman had come up and was kneeling at his feet. ‘Lord,’ she said ‘help me.’ He replied, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.’ She retorted, ‘Ah yes, sir; but even house-dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.’ And from that moment her daughter was well again.

Painting by Michael Cook