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 incorrect to conclude that Jesus was at least mildly bothered by the persistent Canaanite woman in the Gospel passage 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.” At that very moment her daughter got better.
The Canaanite woman felt so deeply the need of the intervention of Jesus in her plight of a very sick child that she took her chances of being ridiculed or rejected and boldly said what was on her mind. We, like Jesus, and like the disciples, usually prefer public gatherings to go more smoothly. Maybe that’s what makes this Sunday’s Gospel episode so memorable: it’s quite “out of the ordinary,” with some impressive words and circumstances, with a very good point: faith is what really matters in life, 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 seven 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.”
While the Canaanite woman seems to exemplify “bad manners” in today’s Gospel, that is not the end of the story. The disciples and Jesus himself recognized a potentially volatile situation in the Canaanite woman’s pleas for help, but 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. We should imitate this kind of boldness when it comes to petitioning the Lord, who is capable of coming to our assistance, always and everywhere.
Jesus is 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.
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, was able to act on behalf of the woman, who 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 such hesitation may not be possible, when a decision must be made immediately. In other cases there is a chance to reflect a bit or much 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 give help to a Canaanite, not a member 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, up to the present day.
In the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the remembrance of Christ’s offering himself for the life of the world, for the rich and the poor, peoples of all nations and times, we 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 you and me and everyone else in the world.
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 Saint Benedict exhorts his monks, for God is always ready to pour grace and mercy upon us.
Our resolve this week should 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. We should be completely committed to form one Church and be one body in the bonds of peace.
A blessed Sunday and week ahead!