Scripture Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Gospel According to Saint Matthew 15:21-28
It should be safe to say and not a heresy to conclude that Jesus was at least mildly bothered by the persistent Canaanite woman in the Gospel passage for this Sunday, with her famous line, “even the dogs eat the scraps from their master’s table.” Would we have the nerve to say such to the Lord? You have to give the unnamed woman credit for her boldness and insight, which in fact moved the Lord to clearly proclaim to her: “Woman, you have great faith! Your wish will come to pass.” And that very moment her daughter got better.
She so deeply felt the need of the intervention of Jesus in her plight of a very sick child that she took her chances of being ridiculed and rejected by boldly saying what was on her mind. We, like Jesus, like the disciples, usually prefer public gatherings to go more smoothly. But maybe that’s what makes this Gospel episode so memorable—it’s totally out of the ordinary, with some embarrassing words and circumstances, and now engraved in the minds of Christians everywhere for its very good point: faith is what really matters, and not where we were born or raised!
This same point is brought home very well in the first reading of Mass today, from the prophet Isaiah, written centuries before the birth of Christ. Isaiah, speaking in God’s name, says: “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord…loving the name of the Lord…I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer.”
Less than good manners, which the Canaanite woman seems to exemplify in today’s Gospel, are not always bad. While the disciples and Jesus himself recognized here a volatile situation in the Canaanite woman’s pleas for help, they all rolled with the punches, so to speak, and the outcome was very favorable. Jesus worked a cure, because the apparently ill-mannered woman was really on the right track, demonstrating fervor and faith in one who really could do something about her plight. Would that we were so eager to imitate this kind of prodigality when it comes to petitioning the Lord who is capable of coming to our assistance, always and everywhere.
Jesus was initially annoyed at the woman in her vehement demand for help, but by her insistence she proved to be a powerful petitioner, winning over the very one who initially was bothered by her stance. We might say today, “More power to her!”
Keep in mind that for the Jews of this time, the Canaanites were considered to be worshipers of false gods, not the God of the Hebrews, and so from a Jewish perspective this woman had absolutely no right petitioning the Jewish rabbi Jesus. Nonetheless, she put her faith in the Lord, and without fear, asked for help and was heard in her distress. Jesus, convinced that she was a person of much faith, could act in an almost easy manner, for the woman had no doubt whatsoever in the Lord’s power to heal. How good if we can be people of such faith.
Donald Nicholl, the late British layman and author of the fine book called “Holiness,” wrote that all his deepest regrets in life came from acting too quickly on important matters, and not taking time to mull over what the best course of action might be. Of course, in some situations there is no possibility of taking time and a decision must be made immediately. But in other cases, there is a chance to reflect a bit before taking action. We see something similar in Jesus’ approach today, when, with further reflection, he is willing to drop his first response–that his mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel—and actually go beyond the expected, and even to help the Canaanite woman and her daughter, not in any way members of his Jewish household. This of course became the basis of the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.
In our day and age, we have come to accept, more or less, people from all racial backgrounds and beliefs. We are taught to be tolerant and that is certainly important. In the time of Jesus, as in some places of the world today, including parts of the United States, religious or racial differences were and are not to be taken lightly and hostility was and often is strong between people of varying beliefs and nationalities. That makes the Gospel story all the more poignant, since Jesus is clearly showing the universal nature of his message and actions on behalf of the entire human race, not just one particular people, culture or place.
In the Eucharist the Church celebrates, the Mass, the remembrance of Christ’s offering himself for the life of the world, for the rich and the poor, people’s of all nations and times, are being called to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” as the psalmist puts it. Without reserve the Lord pours forth good things on his beloved, on all peoples.
Saint Paul tells us today in the second reading at Mass, from his Letter to the Romans, that God’s gifts and call are irrevocable. That is, they won’t be taken away from us once given by God. Only we are capable of rejecting God’s call and gifts by walking away from them. That fact should encourage us to keep trying even when we might like to give up. We are never to doubt or despair of God’s mercy, as our holy Father Saint Benedict exhorts us, for God is always present, ready to pour grace and mercy upon those who approach him with confidence, like the Canaanite woman.
A good resolve this Sunday week would be to treat everyone with love, and while admitting we are all different to one degree or another, nonetheless to realize we are all equal participants in the life of Christ. By means of the Sacrament of the Eucharis, we profess our commitment to form one Church and be one body in the bonds of peace.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB