God's Favoritism

(Homily for Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A)

This Sunday’s readings confront us with something we, in our egalitarian culture, do not like to face: the mystery of election. Why would God not give everyone the same chance to know him? I cannot answer that question. But the Bible teaches a divine favoritism. It centers on the Jewish people. Of them St. Paul says:

"theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs… (Rom 9:4)

Lest someone think God’s partiality to them has ended, Paul adds: “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” (11:29)

The Jews as a people – and as individuals – have made a greater impact on the world than any other.* Their influence continues in important fields like law, medicine, finance, entertainment, mass communications, etc. It has provoked jealousy, even anti-Semitism.

However, before envying the Jews for their religious and secular privileges, a person would do well to recognize that they have probably suffered more than any other people.** Profound literature, philosophy – and even comedy – have flowed from that paradox. Election came with such a high price that it sometimes seems the unfairness is toward those who are chosen, not the outsiders.

What, then, is our relationship as Gentiles to the Jewish people? St. Paul also explores that mystery. We have not only received through them the Old Testament revelation, but we have – in Christ – been “grafted” into that race. Paul compares us Gentiles to a wild branch joined to the Jewish olive tree. (Rom 11:24)

Sometimes people who advocate women priests will use this argument: While it is true Christ chose only males as apostles, he also only chose Jews. Why not ordain only Jewish men? My response is that we are Jews. By baptism we were grafted into that tree. As Pope Pius XI stated (in response to the mounting anti-Semitism in Germany): “Spiritually, we are all Semites.”***

We see the beginnings of the process in today’s Gospel. To the Canaanite woman who begs his help, Jesus replies: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt 15:24) Then comes a verse which sounds so harsh to our ears: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” (15:26) The children are the Jewish people. Gentiles, like you and me, are the dogs.

After raising a puppy for three months, I consider the epithet more positively. While my dog is often exasperating, still he has endearing qualities, including an enormous capacity for loyalty. Whatever Jesus meant (unfortunately Matthew does not describe his tone of voice), the woman did not react angrily. She simply asked for some table scraps.

Women often have a way of rearranging a male agenda. This beautiful Syrophoenician certainly did. Jesus praised her great faith – and healed her daughter. By faith we begin a wonderful adventure. It joins us to a chosen people and we receive a share in the blessings –as well as the sufferings.


*Only the Greeks could claim such wide and deep influence, but in contrast with the Jews, they ran out of steam a long time ago. Considering what a tiny percent of world population Jews are today, their ongoing influence is astounding.

**For more on their achievement and suffering, I recommend Paul Johnson’s History of The Jews.

***Pius XI stated the absolute incompatibility between Nazism and Catholicism, both in his 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (which had to be smuggled into Germany because the Nazis confiscated and burned every copy they could find) and in his famous statement of Sept 6, 1938: “Mark well that in the Catholic Mass, Abraham is our Patriarch and forefather. Anti-Semitism is incompatible with the lofty thought which that fact expresses. It is a movement with which we Christians can have nothing to do. No, no, I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissable. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually, we are all Semites.”

Spanish Version

From Archives (for Twentieth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2011: Deep vs. Superficial Faith
2008: Help Me, Lord
2005: Culture Shock
2002: God's Favoritism
1996: Woman, How great is your faith!

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