20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Stranger Danger

When I was growing up and was going to go hang out with friends somewhere, my parents might say to me, "Don't talk to strangers." Even today, when I'm traveling, they say it as a joke - and it's extra funny because, as a priest, I always end up talking to people I don't know.

But I think that idea is pretty common: stay away from strangers. The people we don't know - the people who don't belong to "us" - are somehow dangerous. Now, for my parents to tell me that as a kid is pretty good advice - it keeps a child safe; but it's not the mind of God when it comes to His people.

Our readings today are all about "foreigners" - those outside of God's chosen people of Israel. Isaiah the prophet tells us that one day, not only will these outsiders know God, but they will minister to Him and offer sacrifice in the Temple.

This is a pretty outrageous prophecy. If you look at much of the Old Testament, there is a clear distinction between Israel and the Gentiles. They are often enemies - but God doesn't want things to stay this way. He intends for His people to be a light to all the nations, a beacon that draws in these strangers to a relationship with the true God. As St. Paul says in the second reading from Romans, God wants to have mercy on all people.

We see the echoes of this tension in our Gospel reading from St. Matthew. In it, we find Jesus in the region of Tyre and Sidon - Gentile territory. So it should be no surprise when this Canaanite woman approaches Him. She is clearly an outsider - so, when she asks Jesus for help He doesn't immediately answer her and then when He does, He explains that His first mission is to the children of Israel.

All of this, and their next exchange, seems to be Jesus testing her faith. He is drawing out the belief and trust she has already shown in Him. That is the best way to understand the Lord comparing her and her people to the dogs who eat the children's scraps. She is outside of the community of Israel. She had no claim to the covenant that God has made with His people; but her response shows the trust she has in Jesus: "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."

She is throwing herself on His mercy. Even thought she is outside of the chosen people of Israel, she is simply trusting that God will work through this man out of loving kindness. Jesus sees her great faith, and grants what she asks.

What are we to make of all of this?

First, there are no strangers to the love of God.

It's very easy for the Church to become inwardly focused - only worrying about maintaining the buildings and programs we have, and taking care of those of us who are already here. However, God's love is always seeking out more. We should never forget that our Church, from its founding and at its heart, is a missionary one. Our faith is one to be shared and the vast majority of that sharing happens not through the priests, but through you, the faithful people. By being open about your faith and striving to live that faith to its fullest, you welcome more people to the family of the Church.

Second, we should always remember that we are all strangers.

Even if we have been Catholic from the earliest days of our lives, everything we have as members of God's Church is a gift. There's nothing we did or nothing we can do to earn the grace of God. Each one of us is an adopted son or daughter - someone who God chose out of love.

Let's not ever start to think that somehow we deserve this. Everything is a gift - a gift we should constantly be thankful for and one that we should be excited and driven to share.