20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Matt 15: 21-28
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
Aug. 17, 2014
“A Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, ‘Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!’” (Matt 15: 22).
|Christ & the Canaanite Woman|
Juan de Flandes, c. 1500
Earlier in this chapter, Matt 15, Jesus has been arguing with the scribes and Pharisees (15:1-9) and dealing with his own disciples’ lack of understanding (15:10-20). Now Jesus has left Jewish territory; it would seem—we can’t say, for sure, on the basis of what Matthew tells us—that he wants to get a break, get some R&R.
If something like that is the case, this Canaanite woman is interrupting the peace and rest that Jesus and the apostles are seeking and, no doubt, need. She’s intruding.
She is, moreover, a Gentile, a non-Jew, a pagan. The Jews would naturally be prejudiced against her, look down on her, and want nothing to do with her. Jesus doesn’t automatically act that way—when a Roman centurion came to him with a similar plea, he was very receptive (Matt 8:5-13)—but he does initially ignore this woman and then speak harshly and dismissively to her, it certainly appears.
This woman even comes with faith. Notice how she addresses Jesus: “Lord, Son of David.” Tho not Jewish, she recognizes him as Messiah! She’s steps ahead of the apostles, even, in that recognition, and way ahead of the scribes and Pharisees who are giving Jesus such a hard time. She probably doesn’t have a deep understanding of what Jesus’ messiahship means—the apostles haven’t got a clue, either—but she recognizes that he has power over the demons. She appeals to him for a kind of salvation—not eternal salvation but liberation from this demon who “is tormenting her daughter, whatever that may mean. She makes the cry of a concerned mother: Jesus, Lord, save my daughter!
When the disciples beg Jesus to shoo her away—“She’s a pest! Get rid of her!” (cf. 15:23)—he answers them that his mission is to Israel, not the Gentiles. Jesus demonstrates the very issue that the early Church would struggle with for at least a generation, maybe longer: Is Jesus the Savior of all people, or only of the Jews? Does God care about the pagans, or only the Jews? Here, he limits himself, and God’s care, to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24).
She pleads again with him. Her address, “Lord” a 2d time, could be taken to refer again to Jesus as Messiah, the way that title is used in Ps 110, for example (not that this woman from Phoenicia would have known Ps 110). The other way of using the title Lord is as a divine address, the equivalent of YHWH, God’s personal name: e.g., when St. Paul proclaims in Philippians, “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”(2:11). The woman could be recognizing Jesus’ divine power, which not even the apostles have done yet.
And again, Jesus denies her—with an insult! “It’s not right to take the children’s food”—God’s gifts to Israel—“and throw it to the dogs” (15:26). He’s calling her a Gentile, a dog—as great an insult as you can utter in the Middle East. Dogs are scavengers that roam the streets and the fields. They’re unclean. They’re not welcome in polite society.
But the woman’s not insulted, or at least doesn’t indicate she is. She’s humble, realizing that she’s imposing on Jesus and is crossing the line of a cultural taboo, the line of separation between Jews and Gentiles, like that between Jew and Palestinian today.
She’s also quick-witted. She has a comeback: Yes, you might have to feed the kids first; but the dogs get the table scraps! (15:27)
Jesus admires that. He’s also aware that the scribes and Pharisees have been refusing to come to the table of his teaching, his healing power, and his forgiveness. So what should happen with the “leftovers” that they won’t partake of? Even more, he can’t resist this woman’s faith—the faith that acknowledges he’s the Messiah, that he’s the devil’s master, that he acts with God’s own power, that he can save anyone. “Woman, great is your faith,” he exclaims. “I grant your wish” (15:28).
By listening to the prayer of a Gentile woman, Jesus also signals how the Church will eventually settle the great argument—not too strong a word—about whether to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. Those, like St. Paul, in favor of taking in the Gentiles could point back to Jesus’ own actions: responding not to blood or nationality, but to faith. It’s faith in Jesus Christ that saves us, not our race or external religion.
This Canaanite woman shows us what faith-filled prayer is like. She’s persistent. She’s not put off. She won’t take no as God’s final answer. She just keeps at it, even to the point of annoying the heck out of the apostles (which probably didn’t take much).
She’s humble. She knows she needs help. She can’t save her daughter, as none of us can resolve our most fundamental concerns, especially those of the heart and the soul. She pleads, perhaps on her knees, perhaps prostrate, completely helpless—which is the only position in which God can help us. That, as you may know, is the starting point for A.A. and similar groups; it’s the necessary starting point of our spiritual lives. I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how to overcome my sins. I don’t know how to get to heaven. I need God. I need Jesus as my Savior.
A 3d thing about this woman, a very interesting thing, is that she talks back! She debates with Jesus. She does this with the humility to accept an insult but with openness and sincerity. “You have a point,” she tells him, “but how about thinking about this?” Yes, we can argue with God—a tradition as old as the prophet Jeremiah and the Book of Job—complain to God, even tell God off, so long as we’re speaking from our hearts and ultimately are prepared to do his will, as Jesus did.
Those 3 ingredients—persistence, humility, and sincere dialog with God—are great faith and true prayer.