In Sunday’s Gospel, as Jesus travels away from Jerusalem toward the region of the Gentiles, He meets a Canaanite woman who desperately needs His help. Why did He give her the cold shoulder?
Gospel (Read Mt 15:21-28)
To best understand this Gospel episode, we need to know that it follows a description of the great opposition Jesus faced from the Pharisees in Jerusalem. Even though He was performing amazing miracles of healing (read Mt 14:36), the Pharisees could only find fault with Him (read Mt 15:2). Jesus got frustrated with them, calling them “blind guides” (Mt 15:14). He decided to leave the city and head north, up to the region of Tyre and Sidon. These were cities in Phoenicia, territory that was primarily Gentile, not Jewish. It almost seems as if He wanted to get as far away from the hard-hearted Pharisees as He could.
As He traveled through the area, a Canaanite woman sought Him out. The Canaanites, fiercely pagan people, had a long history of conflict with Israel. This woman, however, wasn’t concerned about those differences. She must have been at least somewhat acquainted with Jesus. See that she refers to Him as “Lord” and “Son of David.” She could only have learned these names by having some contact with Jews—perhaps there were some who lived in her town who had traveled to nearby Galilee and come back with stories about Him. It is even possible that she had, herself, gone to see what the buzz was all about. Perhaps she had stood on the fringes of the crowds that surrounded Him wherever He went, watching and listening. However it happened, when this Canaanite found herself in a terrible personal crisis (her daughter was demon-possessed), she knew she had to run out to see Jesus as His entourage passed by.
When she finally meets Jesus face-to-face, she cries out for pity, or mercy. Probably even before she got this first word out, Jesus knew what He was dealing with in this woman. Her complete lack of inhibition, her willingness to overcome the religious barrier between them, and the look of determination that must have been on her face surely spoke volumes. Isn’t this exactly the kind of person Jesus was always looking for?
What happened next makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Jesus “did not answer her a word.” Complete silence. We have to wonder if Jesus looked into her eyes but said nothing. Was there something in His bearing that gave the woman hope? She then badgered the disciples, thinking Jesus would listen to them. They pleaded with Him to do as the woman asked so she could be sent away. She had become an annoyance to them. Jesus replies that His mission is “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Simply put, He tells them He must focus on Jews, not Gentiles. Again, was there something in the tone of His voice that encouraged her? She overheard this explanation, but instead of getting angry and leaving in a huff, she kneels down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
Surely now Jesus will grant this woman’s request. She has moved from loud, insistent begging to a quiet posture of humility at His feet. How can He resist her? We aren’t prepared for His answer: “It is not right to take the food of the childrenand throw it to the dogs.” This seems harsh to us. We must understand that Jesus is using proverbial language to describe this situation. “The children” are, of course, the Jews, members of God’s covenant family. Jews referred to pagans as “dogs,” because the contrast between their well-developed ethical system and the rough, idolatrous, and immoral pagan cultures surrounding Israel was sharp. People outside God’s covenant, therefore, were to the Jews as dogs are to people. Here, Jesus isn’t calling the woman a “dog.” He is using a domestic scene to explain why He must spend His earthly life searching out the lost sheep of that covenant. This was simply a matter of priorities: in family life, the children must be fed before the pet dog. That is just common sense.
Notice that the woman does not resist what Jesus says to her. She knows what the Jews think of the Canaanites. She also knows that she has no reason to expect or demand anything of Him. She doesn’t contradict Jesus with “yes, but…”. She simply takes what He says to her and sees an opening. In humility, she’s willing to think of herself as undeserving as a dog would be compared to the children of a family. However, she points out to Jesus that even in the domestic scene He has described, “crumbs” fall from the children’s table, and the “dogs” are happy to lap them up.
Now, Jesus can bear it no longer! What He must have suspected about the woman from their first exchange becomes crystal clear. This Canaanite woman, this pagan outsider, has exhibited the kind of faith that even the Jerusalem elites failed to muster. Her humble tenacity puts us in mind of Jesus on the Cross, when He also endured the silence of God and His seeming indifference (“My God, why have You abandoned Me?”). He endured to the end in faith, not despairing of His Father’s goodness, no matter how it looked (“Into Your hands I commend My Spirit”). In this, both Jesus and the Canaanite woman are living examples of what the name, Israel, means: “he who strives with God” (see Gn 32:28). True believers are not put off by what can look like God’s adversarial detachment. True believers hang on for dear life, knowing the goodness of the One upon whom they have cast all their hope.
“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Listen to Jesus’ own delight in what He has experienced with this woman. She has taught the disciples a profound lesson of faith. In addition, this encounter between Jesus and an eager, responsive Gentile foreshadows the mission Jesus would give the apostles at His Ascension: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). Jewish resistance to Jesus, noted earlier, would persist and increase, culminating in the Crucifixion. When the apostles began their preaching mission, Jewish opposition would become so strong that eventually the Gospel went out to the Gentiles instead. This Canaanite woman shows us that their hearts would be ready to receive it.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, I see how You delight in faith that simply never gives up. Please help me remember that striving in faith is part of life with You.
First Reading (Read Isa 56:1, 6-7)
Isaiah, a prophet in Judah hundreds of years before Jesus, foresaw a day very much like the one described in the Gospel: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, ministering to Him, loving the name of the LORD, and becoming His servants…I will bring to My holy mountain and make joyful in My house of prayer.” It was always God’s plan for His people to evangelize the pagans. Israel was His elect nation of priests, the ones chosen to mediate between God and all the earth. For most of Israel’s history, however, “evangelization” gave way to pagan idolatry. When Jesus appeared, the plan for Israel could finally be fulfilled. “Foreigners” would flock to Him in faith and obedience. The Canaanite woman was one of the first fruits of this happy harvest for God.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, thank You for the love You have for all people everywhere.
Psalm (Read Ps 67:2-3, 5-6, 8)
The psalmist also foresees a day when God’s “saving power among all the nations” will be announced and adored. He envisions all the earth sending up, with one voice, songs of praise for Israel’s God: “May all the peoples praise You, God!” Jesus knew well that this was God’s plan, even though He seemed detached from the Canaanite woman in her need. He simply allowed time for the power of this woman’s faith to be revealed, especially to the disciples, who would, one day, be the ones to announce the Good News of God’s love to “all the nations.” In the end, Jesus was glad to make His “face shine” upon the pagan woman who so trusted in His goodness. Her story makes us cry with the psalmist: “O God, let all the nations praise you!”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to all the lectionary readings. Read it again prayerfully as your own.
Second Reading (Read Rom 11:13-15, 29-32)
St. Paul gives us an explanation of the dynamic at work in the rejection of Jesus by the Jews and the reception of the Gospel by the Gentiles. He was, as we know, appointed by Jesus to be an “apostle to the Gentiles,” a ministry he found satisfying, because he could, as he writes, “make my race jealous and thus save some of them.” What did he mean? St. Paul always began his missionary preaching in the Jewish synagogues of towns he visited on his missionary journeys. Usually, he was driven out by Jewish opposition. He would then go preach to the Gentiles, where he made many converts. His hope was that someday, his kinsmen would see in the Gentile converts a true relationship with Israel’s God and thus be able to recognize Jesus as Messiah through them. This, of course, would require humility and God’s mercy, because by their rejection of Jesus, they did not deserve the goodness of God. Remember that the Canaanite woman also recognized her unworthiness before Jesus and made her first request of Him one for “pity,” or mercy. St. Paul says that just as the Gentiles had to cry out for God’s mercy (and received it), so one day will the Jews. As the story of salvation has unfolded, we see that God has allowed human pride to play out its own script. The Gentiles rejected the true God (Who bore witness to Himself both in nature and the human conscience; see Romans 1), and thus became disobedient. The Jews, proud of their inheritance as the Chosen People, rejected a Messiah like Jesus, and thus became disobedient. St. Paul urges hope, however: “God delivered all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.” Praise the Lord!
Possible response: Lord, help me remember that my best prayers begin with a request for Your mercy.