GREAT AGAIN? – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 15, Year A; Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (RC)

August 20, 2023

Revised Common Lectionary
Genesis 45:1-15 or Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 133 or Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28


Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8 (4)
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28

What is God’s take on making a nation “great again”?

Surging nationalism around the world has made this question an important one for Christian believers. Many countries, including the United States, have seen nationalist and ultranationalist movements gain support in recent years. Often these movements spring from a sense of loss or fear among a dominant segment of the population. Nationalist leaders often urge such groups to “reclaim” their place, most often at the expense of others.

Today’s Hebrew Scripture reading from Isaiah is addressed to a nation that is in the throes of rebuilding following the return of exiles and the end of oppressive rule by the Babylonians. This was their opportunity to make Jerusalem “great again”—to rebuild the Temple, reclaim national identity, squeeze out foreigners, and enforce their ways of believing and living.

Those who returned from exile mostly represented prominent families and skilled professionals, while those who had been left behind were often unskilled, poor, or regarded as unimportant by the Babylonian authorities. Much of the land to which the exiles returned had been settled by foreigners who brought with them their own cultures and customs. As returnees began to rebuild, they faced a complex social situation in Jerusalem and the surrounding territory.

The verses we hear today are found at the beginning of a section (Chapters 56-66) known to scholars as Third Isaiah, prophetic writings that speak to the situation of the Jewish people following the exile. While these chapters are full of hope and rejoicing, they also serve as a reminder of the real place of God’s people in the world.

If Jerusalem is to be “great again,” then it can do so only if the people “maintain justice, and do what is right” (Is 56:1). The just treatment and inclusion of foreigners is to be an integral part of the restoration of Jerusalem and of the nation. All those who love God’s name and keep the Sabbath—not only Jews—will find a place on the holy mountain (Jerusalem) and will be made joyful in the Temple itself, the center of Jewish life and identity. Even foreigners will be admitted and allowed to participate in offering sacrifice, the most sacred activity of the Temple. God’s house is a place not for those of just one ethnicity. No, God says, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (Is 56:7).

The reign of God that Jesus proclaimed in his life and ministry transcends national boundaries and national interests. It is populated by the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, by those who hunger and thirst for justice. The Canaanite woman portrayed in today’s Gospel reading reminds Jesus of the breadth of God’s reign. She boldly and steadfastly refuses to be excluded as she seeks the gift of healing for her daughter. Jesus’s eventual acquiescence to the faith and insight of this foreigner foreshadows the concluding verses of Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus commands his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). God’s reign includes all.

While affirming the special place of the Jewish people in God’s plan, Jesus acts and teaches in a way that is consistent with the vision of Third Isaiah. He harshly criticizes religious leaders who define belonging by blood ties rather than by just living. In the reign of God there is clearly no place for white nationalism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant policies, or neglect of those who are different from us. To make any nation “great again” is to extend a wide embrace to all people, regardless of their race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion.

A Hymn for Today: “In Christ There Is No East or West”

John Oxenham was the pen name of British business professional William J. Dunkerley (1852-1941), who took up writing to occupy his mind during extensive business travels. Scholars believe that he wrote this text as a response to well-known lines by Rudyard Kipling,“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” from “The Ballad of East and West.”

This hymn celebrates the universality of God’s family that transcends any human constructs. The tune often used, MCKEE, was adapted from an African American spiritual by Harry T. Burleigh, FHS. Listen here. Read more here.

In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north,
but one community of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

In Christ shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find;
his service is the golden cord
close-binding humankind.

Join hands, disciples of the earth,
whate’er your race may be.
All children of the living God
are surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both east and west;
in him meet south and north.
All Christly souls are one in him
throughout the whole wide earth.

Text: John Oxenham (William A. Dunkerley), 1852-1941, alt.

Image credit: Refugees on a boat, Wikimedia Commons

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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