The Canaanite woman

A Homily for the 20th Sunday of the Year by Msgr. Charles Pope:

The Canaanite Woman


Today’s gospel teaches us to pray always and not lose heart. This is a gospel about having tenacity in prayer and, even when the results seem discouraging, continuing to beseech the Lord. It is also a gospel about the Lord’s will to extend the gospel to all the nations and to make the Church truly catholic.

Let’s look at this gospel in five stages.

STAGE I. TRAVELS – The text says, At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Thus Jesus goes north of Israel into the territory we know today as Lebanon.

Now Matthew is not just giving us a quick travelogue here. We are not interested merely in Jesus’ physical location but, even more, in what this location signifies. Jesus has gone up north to pagan territory. Other things being equal, this is a rather odd destination for a Jewish preacher. But we need to recall that Jesus is preparing the Church for a mission to all the nations. So it makes sense that He pushes the boundaries of the Jewish world. Jesus interacted with Gentiles and Samaritans as if to say, “The racism of a Jewish-only world must now end. The Gospel must break the boundaries of nation and race and be truly universal, truly catholic.”

This vision of the Gentiles being drawn to the Lord was actually well attested to in the Old Testament. But, just like today, there were texts in the Scriptures that were popular and well known and others that were conveniently “forgotten” or had little effect. Consider a few examples of texts that announced the entry of the Gentiles into the Holy People of God:

  1. The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, ministering to him, loving the name of the LORD, and becoming his servants–all who keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples(Isaiah 56:6-9).
  2. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Is 49:6).
  3. Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called “mother” for all shall be her children (Psalm 87:4-5).
  4. I come to gather nation of every language; they shall come and see my glory. Some of these I will take as priests and Levites says the Lord … All mankind shall come to worship before me says the Lord (Is 66:18; 23).

Hence we can see that the Jewish people’s own Scriptures spoke of a day when Jews and Gentiles together would worship the Lord and be His people.

This introductory note about Jesus’ location is essential to understanding the text that will follow. We must grasp Jesus’ will to reach out to the Gentiles. We do this in order to appreciate that some of the harsh tone He exhibits later can likely be understood as a rhetorical means of questioning racial and national division rather than as an affirmation of such division. In effect He is tweaking His disciples and the Church and giving voice to their fears and hostilities. In so doing He also calls out the Canaanite woman in order to show forth one who is willing to set aside these racist notions for a greater good.

Let’s watch it unfold.

Stage II. TORMENT – The text says, And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”

It is a sure fact that Canaanites were despised by Jews. And Canaanites returned the favor and despised them right back. What is it that would make a Canaanite woman reach out to a Jewish Messiah? In a word, desperation. In her torment and desperation this woman no longer cares who helps her daughter as long as someone helps her!

She has likely heard of Jesus’ power to save and heal. She looks past her racial hatred and, risking terrible personal rebuke, calls on Jesus. Her sorrow crosses boundaries. The only enemy she cares about is the demon afflicting her daughter.

It is sad but true that a common enemy can often unite factions. It should not take this, but the Lord will take whatever he can get to unite us.

So torment has lowered the barriers.

Stage III. TEST – The text says, But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”…. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

It is a shocking and daring thing that Jesus does here. He takes up the voice of sin, oppression, racism, and nationalism. It is a very strange thing to hear come from the mouth of the Lord, who has already journeyed among the Samaritans and Gentiles, healing them and often praising their faith (e.g. Lk 8:26; Mt 8:10; Lk 7:9; Matt 8:11 inter al).

The usual explanation is that He is calling out this woman’s faith and through her is summoning His disciples to repentance. The disciples want the Lord to order her away. In effect, He takes up their voices and the voice of all oppression and utters the hateful sayings of the world, even going so far as to use the term “dog” to refer to her.

Yes, Jesus is testing her, trying to awaken something in her. He is also giving voice to the ugly thoughts of His disciples and likely others, Gentile and Jew, who were standing by and watching with marvel and disdain the interaction of a Gentile, a Gentile woman, and a Jew.

There is a saying, “Things do, by opposition grow.” And thus, through this test, Jesus increases her faith and possibly that of the bystanders. Just as an athlete grows by facing tougher opponents and a musician improves by playing tougher pieces, so does the testing of this woman’s faith cause it to grow.

Remember, God tested Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Job, Esther, Susannah, Judith, Gideon, and countless others. The Canaanite woman, too, is being tested. And like those of old she, too, will grow by the test.

We, too, are tested. For God seems at times to be strangely silent and we are made to feel like no child of God at all. Indeed we may often conclude that even the dogs live better than we.

So the question for us remains. Will we give way during the test or hold out until our change comes? Will our faith grow or wither? Will our love grow stronger or will it change to resentment?

Stage IV. TENACITY – The text says, But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

Note here that the woman is not put off. Whatever anger, grief, or discouragement may move through her, she perseveres.

She is even bold and creative. In a sense, she will not take no for an answer.

  1. She is like Mother Mary at Cana, who did not pause for a moment when Jesus seemed dubious of her request (Jn 2:5).
  2. She is like the widow before the Judge in Jesus’ parable, who never stopped pestering the judge for a favorable ruling (Lk 18:1-8).
  3. She is like the blind man at the side of the road, who still kept calling for Jesus despite the rebuke of the crowds (Lk 18:39).
  4. She is like the parents who brought their infants to Jesus for a blessing, who withstood rebuke by the disciples and won through to the blessing (Mk 10:13-16).
  5. She is like Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree to see Jesus despite his short stature (Lk 19:1ff).
  6. She is like the widow with the hemorrhage, who, though weak and ritually unclean, pressed thorough the crowd and grabbed the hem of Jesus’ garments (Mk 5:28).
  7. She is like the lepers, who, though forbidden by law to enter the town, sought the Lord at the Gates and fell down before Him (Luke 17).

Yes, she has tenacity. She will hold out until the change (the healing she desires for her daughter) is accomplished. She will not give up or let go of Jesus no matter how unwilling He seems, no matter how politically incorrect her request appears, no matter how much hostility she encounters from the disciples, the crowds, or even Jesus Himself. She will hold out.

Here is a woman with tenacity! How about you?

Stage V. TRIUMPH – The text says,  Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.

Here is the victory. She has gone from torment to triumph by a tenacious and tested faith. Jesus now takes away the veil of His role and shows His true self—the merciful, wonder-working Messiah and Lord.

Jesus says to her, “Great is your faith.” But how has it become so? In the crucible of testing, that’s how. We may wonder at God’s delays, at His seeming disinterest or even anger. But in the end it is our faith that is most important to Him.

Our faith is more important to God than our finances, our comfort, or our desired cures. For it is by faith that we are saved. We are not saved by our health, by comforts, by money, or by good fortune. And God is willing to delay; He is willing to test us and try us, if only for the sake of our stronger faith by which He will save us. God saves us, but He does it through our faith.

Why all this delay? Why the suffering? Why the trials? Stronger faith, that’s why! God may not come when you want Him, but He’s always right on time. For His true goal is not to give us what we want, but rather what we need—stronger faith.

Having done this, the Lord gives her the triumph. We, too, must accept that God’s truest blessing for us is not better health or improved finances; it is stronger faith.

Consider well the lesson of this gospel. Though God often seems uninterested, even cruel, He is working His purposes out and seeking to increase our faith. Hard, you say? What parent among you has not had to do the same for your child? For children, untested and untried, who get their every wish, who never have to wait, become spoiled, self-centered, and headed for ultimate ruin. Consider well that God knows exactly what He is doing and consider, too, that most of us are hard cases. God must often work mightily to get our attention and strengthen our faith. Do not give up on God; He is up to something good, very good.

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9 Responses to The Canaanite woman

  1. Bob Hayes says:

    Thank you for this posting. It is informative and refreshing and a great contrast to the rather odd interpretation in the Redemptorist Sunday Message, which claims the Canaanite woman ‘forces him (Jesus) to rethink his mission’!


  2. toadspittle says:

    “…But we need to recall that Jesus is preparing the Church for a mission to all the nations.”

    Oh, really, Msgr.? All in His own good time, I suppose.
    When did the mission “to all the nations” get to Australia, or Borneo, then? Relatively recently, I’d imagine. Let’s not bother going into the Americas – ages ago, over 500 years.
    And what about these tribes coming out of the Amazon jungle virtually every other day, these days? Have they heard the mission yet? Unlikely. But they will, no doubt.
    It’s taken over two thousand years so far, and I’d bet there are still millions living today who have never heard the word, “Christ,” spoken.
    So, less of the “Catholic,” i.e. universal, – Toad would diffidently suggest.


  3. toadspittle says:

    “We may wonder at God’s delays, at His seeming disinterest or even anger.”
    Msgr probably means uninterest.We, too, are tested.

    “For God seems at times to be strangely silent and we are made to feel like no child of God at all. Indeed we may often conclude that even the dogs live better than we.”
    The dogs deserve to love better than we. They don’t kill one another in God’s name.


  4. toadspittle says:

    (“love” should read, “live.” Freudian slip, if there ever was one.)


  5. piliersdelaterre says:

    This is the third sermon I’ve heard in two days which apologises somewhat for Jesus’s farouche behaviour. But this account of the Canaanite woman’s meeting accords with the strange, charismatic, anti-sychophantic – even sometimes harsh- Jesus of Pasolini’s film. Pope Francis admires Pasolini for respecting the “difficult” personality of Jesus. So do I. And why should Jesus NOT be Jewish in the sense of being essentially committed to the whole hermeneutic (?) of Jewish salvation history. He is not breaking boundaries at all- he is fulfilling a people’s destiny (shamanlike) and elsewhere says that he will offer the gospel to those outside the fold- anyone with ears to hear- because those within have ignored Him or wasted His presence (e.g. the people called in from the highways and byways to fill the feast).
    Sometimes it is annoying to have Jesus translated, presuming that people always understood Him better by dint of their shared culture back then. First, He reminds me of the Shamans who deliberately used “twisted language”, or a language of shadows, to get to the liminal world, where people had to follow Him with great difficulty- if at all. He was anything but “nice” (I really like the way Pasolini insists upon this). He was NOT easy; seemed to deliberately goad the High priests (inevitably they would seek to destroy Him); did not CARE to be polite or friendly but rather TRUTHFUL- and was (in my opinion) constantly referring to an “elite”. He was dangerous and revolutionary, and even had bad moods.
    None of which makes His truthfulness any less, or His integrity. But His “love” …? Maybe the perfect coincidence of matter and spirit, a side-effect of dwelling completely in communion/truth.
    I do think that the resonance of His language is that of the Ur-poet, and is also the language of deep dreams. When He said it was truth for all nations, is it not like the way Jung reveals that dreamers move from the outer world of the father via the dangerous route to the anima, “through water”- losing the world of outer law and gaining a “oneness with” the father (“father”- again a liminal word for law)- in other words, the quality of inner authority or genius. Is not Jesus presenting us with that kind of authority, for which He must use language not of “this” world?


  6. And how long did Monica, Augustine’s mother, pray for her son’s conversion? Something like twenty years? But when the answer finally came, WHAT an answer she – and all the rest of us with her – received in the end.

    And then there’s the old admonition about persisting with a prayer to lead a better life. It’s said that such a prayer will have one of two results: either you stop sinning or you stop praying. There must surely be a vast, unknown number of individuals – with many saints among them – who have found that advice to contain the absolute truth, even if the truth takes years to show itself.


  7. John says:

    “Yes, Jesus is testing her, trying to awaken something in her”
    “We, too, are tested. For God seems at times to be strangely silent and we are made to feel like no child of God at all”
    “Will we give way during the test or hold out until our change comes? Will our faith grow or wither? Will our love grow stronger or will it change to resentment?”

    I often envy people who I see in church who appear to have little in the way of struggle in respect of their relationship with God.

    Having been close to several of my fellow parishioners during the time of my Anglican lay ministry, I came to see how for some people their faith was just that – Pure, unquestioning, devout and uncomplicated. For me this has never been the case.

    As a child I attended Sunday school, was a member of a Church Boy’s organization, and didn’t really give much thought to the why and wherefore of it all, but as I grew older, my relationship with God became a great deal more complicated.

    I should make it clear that I have ALWAYS believed, but my relationship has not always been a good one, and hardly ever an easy one.

    Like most people who have reached or past middle age, I have had my share of misfortune, sadness, regret, and sorrow, and have on more than one occasion been on the receiving end the treacherous side of man’s nature.

    I make no bones about it, God has I feel, not made it easy for me to follow the paths of love and forgiveness that I should have followed, and I have over the years found little in the way of peace in my spiritual life, rather I have railed against what seemed to be the cruelty and injustices that plague so many of us in the modern world, and became weary of looking to God for the answers.

    I tried, God knows I tried to apply the precepts of my faith to the chaos, misery, unhappiness, and fear that my life was becoming, and although I knew what I should be doing in terms of applying the precepts of my faith to what was happening , and although I would read the words of Our lord for comfort, the reality was that my life remained a wretched mess, and moreover, as I was living this life of chaos, I was assisting my Church in its ministry in the Parish.

    I knew there was a fundamental problem, but I didn’t know what to do about it. You see I liked to be in control, I was (still am) stubborn, and like to think I am the guiding force in terms of my destiny, but deep down, I knew I was in the wrong and I knew I needed to listen to God, who was constantly nagging me, but the truth of the matter is that I didn’t really want to hear what he was saying, because I knew I wouldn’t like it. I was being a petulant child.

    One thing I knew for certain, was that I had become the kind of person who was no longer fit to minister within my church. I had not lost my faith. God was very much present in my life, but boy had had I fallen out with him big time !

    I decided that I would withdraw from my various roles, which coincided with my general disillusionment with Anglican expressions of Christianity. From that time onwards my life took a nose dive. Nothing went right and I wasted 10 years of my life floundering around without an anchor with such a profound sense of loss it was almost unbearable, but at the same time finding no way back;

    Alienated, Despairing, with life having little meaning “ Like no child of God at all”
    Throughout all of this God was there – that much I was aware of,, but my petulance , anger, and disappointment prevented dialogue with him, causing bitterness, misery, guilt, and increasing unhappiness , and yet deep down I craved for a sign from him to show that I was after all not a lost cause.

    When that sign came, ( in the form of a simple article in a newspaper ) it was as though I had been handed the keys of the Kingdom, and I willing opened my heart to it, and when I did, the voice of Our Lord was like a rush of adrenalin, the more I listened to what he was saying to my heart, the more I was able to give in, and I simply followed willingly and gratefully and though not without effort on my part, was supported all the way.

    All that followed as a result I did not question, since each revelation and step along the way has given me such richness and joy. I have not only re discovered the riches of my faith and rediscovered the love of God, ( which was always there ) but it has been enriched beyond measure, with my discovery of all that the Roman Catholic community has given me and continues to offer in the richness and beauty of its liturgy, its supporting strength, its friendship, and its sense of being my home.

    When I look back, and I think about where I am today, it all seems so obvious, What I needed was there all the time, but I could not or would not face it, It is not for me to question, but perhaps God needed me to go through this before giving me this wonderful golden gift of rediscovery , and showing me the path I should have taken.

    Although I know I have failed him in so many ways, he never failed me, and through all the testing of my faith over the years he has made his voice heard and now given me the wonderful gifts – a strengthening of my faith, peace in my heart, forgiveness, love, and more than anything else a place I can call home


  8. What a tremendously moving statement, and a really inspiring one as well.


  9. toadspittle says:

    Re: piliers @ 10.29
    Pasolini was, of course, a professed Marxist and Atheist, as we all know.
    I’ve pondered what his motives were for making the film, and can only guess.
    My notion is that – possibly – he did it to demonstrate the gulf between how Christ told us we should act, and how people actually do act.
    …But I have no idea.


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