daily biblical sermons

Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Sunday, 20th Sunday of the Year, August 20, 2017
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7, Psalm 66, Romans 11:13-15, 29-32, Matthew 15:21-28

Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted


"Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith; be it done for you as you desire.' And her daughter was healed instantly" (Matthew 15:28).

This is the account of Jesus casting a demon out of the daughter of a pagan (Canaanite) woman from a distance, in the pagan region of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus, however, does not cure the woman's daughter right away, for she was a pagan, not a Jew, since his mission during his earthly lifetime was only to Jews, as he told his disciples, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 15:24).

After his resurrection, Jesus sent his disciples out to convert the world, saying, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).

But Jesus did not tell them how to convert the Gentiles. The disciples took it for granted that they would have to make the Gentiles Jews first, teaching them to obey the full ceremonial and moral Mosaic law, and then convert them to faith in Christ as their Savior.

They did not yet know that they could convert and baptize Gentiles directly without first requiring that they be circumcised and obey the full Mosaic law. This came as a great and very surprising discovery for them, and, at the hands of St. Paul, had far-reaching theological implications, opening up to them their understanding of the mystery of how God saves us in Jesus Christ.

First of all, God had to teach the apostles, after Jesus' resurrection, that they should not distinguish any more between Jews and Gentiles. Peter had a vision of many unclean animals. "And there came a voice to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.' But Peter said, ‘No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.' And a voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, you must not call common'" (Acts 10:13-15).

Then, in the Gentile Cornelius's house, which was filled with Gentiles who wanted to hear Peter preach to them, Peter says, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (Acts 10:28). Peter then preached Christ to them, saying, "To him [Christ] all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name" (Acts 10:43).

As Peter said this, "the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Peter then declared, ‘Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?' And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 10:44-48).

When Peter returned to Jerusalem, he explained all this to the Church there, and "when they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life'" (Acts 11:18). This was their great discovery.

Some time later, the Church in Jerusalem again met to discern this matter about how to treat Gentiles who wanted to become Christians. And Peter stood up and said, "God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke [the full Mosaic law] upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will" (Acts 15:8-11).

In other words, when the Gentiles in Cornelius's house heard Christ preached to them, they believed, and the Holy Spirit fell on them, and they began speaking in tongues and praising God. So it was obvious that God makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles when it comes to believing in Jesus Christ. Both are saved by faith in Christ, and their hearts are equally cleansed through faith, irregardless of whether they follow or do not follow the Mosaic law. God "cleansed their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:9).

The final conclusion is, "We believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will" (Acts 15:11). It is grace and faith that cleanse our hearts from sin and give us a new life in Christ. So Peter argues that there is no need to make Gentiles follow the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law. "Now therefore why do you make a trial of God by putting a yoke [the full Mosaic law] upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10). It was quite clear at this point that keeping the Mosaic law was not a prerequisite for being baptized and saved from our sins by Christ.

St. Paul then develops this further, coming to the conclusion that we are justified by faith, not by works of any kind, whether ceremonial or moral, for we "know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified" (Galatians 2:16).

St. Paul reaches this profound theological insight by considering that the transaction that Jesus Christ worked for us on the cross fully earned our forgiveness and the declaration by God that we are now acquitted of all our sins and reckoned righteous. No works of our own of any kind (either ceremonial or moral) are needed. Only faith is needed to receive this justification.

St. Paul concludes, "No human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law" (Romans 3:20). "For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (Romans 3:28). "That no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘the just shall live by faith'" (Galatians 3:11 NKJV).

So it makes no difference whether one is a Jew or a Gentile. If you call upon Christ with faith, you will be saved from your sins and declared and made righteous by God.

St. Paul writes, "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved" (Romans 10:9-10 NRSV).

This does not mean that we can't lose our salvation by sin. It only means that if we call upon Christ with faith, we will be forgiven and saved from our past sins and declared and made righteous by God, with Christ's own righteousness reckoned to us by our faith. This act of salvation is called justification; it is by faith, not by works. It is based on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, whereby he paid our debt of punishment for our sins, being punished for them in our place, instead of us being punished for them. And God credits his suffering in reparation for our sins to our account when we genuinely repent, promise to abandon our sins, and put our faith in Christ's atoning work on the cross.

So St. Paul continues to say that this new way of salvation in Christ applies equally to both Jews and Gentiles. So Gentiles don't have to become Jews first. All they have to do is repent and believe in Christ for the merits of his atoning death to be credited to their account by God. St. Paul says, "The Scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.' For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call upon him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved'" (Romans 10:11-13 NRSV).

All who call upon Christ with faith and repentance will be saved from their sins and be declared and made righteous by God, because of the atoning work of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Our faith enables God to credit his atoning work on the cross to our account.

But then there is final salvation and entry into heaven after death. This is another matter. This requires that we enter a process of sanctification, which requires that we live a good life of good works. Our good life of good works indicates that we really have been justified and have not lost our salvation by falling away from Christ and living in constant grave sin. So our final salvation depends both on our faith and on our good life of good works.

Jesus' kindness to this Gentile (Canaanite) woman by curing her daughter is thus a preview of what the Church would do with Gentiles. It would preach the gospel to them and invite them to believe in Christ's saving death and resurrection, and it would baptize all who believe in him. As long as Gentiles genuinely repent, promise to abandon their grave sins, and believe in Christ, they may be baptized and welcomed into the Church, be nourished by the word of God, and be helped by the sacraments.


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