20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
It is very clear from all three readings today that the Church wishes to impart the message that the Word of God is for all, irrespective of race, nation, gender, social status, or even religious belief. In the first reading from the Book of Isaiah, written 700 years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet exclaims that foreigners “who join themselves to the Lord” will be welcome and that the Lord’s house “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Today’s gospel passage from the fifteenth chapter of St. Matthew highlights one foreigner in particular, the Canaanite woman. Let’s put the encounter of Jesus with this woman into context. Two Sunday’s ago we heard the account of the miracle of the feeding of the multitude that had followed Jesus into a deserted place. Following that significant event we heard last week of the storm on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus appeared to the disciples walking on the water. In that storm we remember that Peter had faltered until our Lord had saved him. Jesus said to Peter, “Why did you falter, you of little faith?”
Following these two great manifestations of power, Matthew tells us that Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a land foreign to the Jews. It is the home of the Canaanites, longtime enemies of the Jews. However, Matthew tells us that Jesus was approached by a Canaanite woman who implored his assistance for her daughter who was possessed by demons. She called out,
Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.
We are told that Jesus did not answer her request. But the Apostles step in and ask him to send her away. He seems to ignore their request and says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Before anyone has a chance to act, the woman speaks up a second time. She does homage to Jesus and exclaims, “Lord, help me.” The reply of Jesus seems so uncharacteristic:
It is not right to take the food of the children And throw it to the dogs.
It is hard to hear Jesus speak in such a harsh, and seemingly insulting manner. We would like to think that it is just a figure of speech. Dogs was the common word used by the Jews to describe Gentiles or unbelievers. We remember at the wedding feast of Cana that Jesus did seem to speak harshly even to his own Mother. When Mary mentioned that the wine had run out, he said, Woman, what would you have me do? My hour has not yet come.
What is more serious than the words used by Jesus are his actions. At Cana, he did accede to his Mother’s request but in the presence of the Canaanite woman, he seems to be thinking it over. Maybe dog is a harsh word but how could he help this woman and her poor daughter possessed by demons? By this time he had already helped or cured thousands of people but he insisted that it was their faith that saved them. How could this woman have faith? She did not know Moses and the Prophets. She had no knowledge of Jewish law or tradition. She probably even worshipped idols.
Nevertheless, the woman refuses to take no for an answer and responds to the words of Jesus:
Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.
She does have faith. She does believe that He can help her daughter and her persistence is rewarded.
Then Jesus said to her in reply:
‘O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’
So many people in the bible are rewarded for their persistence. We think of the woman bothering the judge until he rules in her favor; the man waking his neighbor asking for food in the middle of the night; and the poor crippled beggar who had waited at the pool of Siloam for years to be healed. Persistence is not one of the great virtues but without it none of them would be possible.
The plight of the Canaanite woman brings to mind the plight of so many today who have children or relatives suffering from mental illness. Doctors can prescribe medication and treatment but that is often a hit or miss proposition. Often the only thing we can do is hope and pray, and persist in faith, hope, and charity toward those who are suffering.
In today’s second reading from the letter to the Romans, St. Paul says that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” It is a little hard to follow his line of reasoning but he is saying that when some reject the call, it will go to others, but that the others will then have the duty to reach out to those who have gone astray.
Reading 1. Isaiah 56: 1, 6-7
Reading II. Romans 11: 13-15, 29-32
Gospel. Matthew 15: 21-28 (Canaanite Woman)