Aug. 19, 2017

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1st- Is. 56: 1, 6-7; 2nd- Rom. 11: 13-15, 29-32; Gospel- Matt. 15: 21-28

Can we contrast the Canaanite woman with the disciples of Jesus? The first difference is that the Canaanite woman is an outsider. She comes from a Gentile territory, an area considered not to have anything to do with the salvation brought to the Jews. Second, as a woman, she does not have any right to walk up to Jesus in a society that is primarily patriarchal. That is the surprise to his disciples. In the first place, Jesus steps over the boundary in today’s gospel by going into the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon, a place considered unclean by his opponents. The Canaanite woman takes advantage of the opportunity, defies every visible obstacle and expresses strong faith in Jesus.

If we take a look at two storm-passages in the gospel, it becomes clear that the Canaanite woman exhibits courage by overcoming external forces on her way. The first account of the storm is in Matt. 8: 23-27. The disciples of Jesus are in the boat, and Jesus is with them. There comes a violent storm that attempts to capsize their boat. Jesus is asleep. The disciples become so terrified that they cry out, “Save us, Lord, we are lost” (Matt. 8: 25). Jesus’ reply to them is, “Why are you so frightened, you who have so little faith?” (Matt. 8: 26). The next account of the storm is in Matthew 14: 22-33, which was read at Mass last Sunday.

The disciples are in the boat, this time not with Jesus. Jesus walks on the water in the fourth watch of the night towards the disciples. They imagine Jesus to be ghost, and become afraid. Jesus calms their fear. Then Peter requests to walk on the water with Jesus. As he begins this journey, he becomes frightened and begins to sink. Peter’s exclamation is similar to that of the disciples above, “Lord, save me”. Jesus stretches out his hand and pulls Peter up with the statement, “You have so little faith” (Matt. 14: 31-32).

In today’s gospel, the Canaanite woman dares her own storms to get to Jesus. The disciples are not able to stop her. It seems somehow that Jesus plays into their narrative. At first, he keeps quiet on her. Second, he says to her, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Third, Jesus uses derogatory language that is often applied to the Gentiles by the Jews, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs".

In contrast to the disciples, the Canaanite woman does not let any of these external factors distract her. She adopts a humorous approach to respond to Jesus. The more they scare her, the closer she comes. In her heart she believes that the prophecy of Isaiah, “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants”, will be fulfilled. She is convinced that “all who hold to the covenant, them God will bring to his holy mountain, and make joyful. She recognizes that God’s house is “a house of prayer for all peoples”. Her faith surpasses the faith of the disciples because she backs it up with patience. Jesus says to her, “O woman, great is your faith” (Matt. 15: 28).

The drama looks like this: From nowhere, the woman emerges, shouts at Jesus and his disciples. The disciples are uncomfortable because she is a woman. They are protective of Jesus, don’t want the Jews to know that they are in a gentile territory. They feel they will have the backing of the Master when they ask him to send the woman away. That’s not true. Just imagine the back and forth conversation, the privilege Jesus gives this woman to converse with him, "But the woman came and did him homage, saying, "Lord, help me." He says in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs." She says, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters." Then Jesus says to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish" (Matt. 15:25-28). I’m wondering what the reactions and expressions of the disciples will be at such an exchange between Jesus and this woman-stranger.

The passage challenges us in numerous ways. Can we withstand God’s test like the Canaanite woman? What happens when our patience is stretched to its limit? The Canaanite woman is insulted by the disciples, almost forced to back off from her demand. She has her eyes constantly fixed upon Jesus and on the miracle she is expecting, “My daughter is tormented by a demon. Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David”.

I wish to emphasize our three "Ps" once again looking at this discourse: Prayer, Patience and Perseverance.

Prayer: Faith elicits prayer. Those who come to the house of God, as prophet Isaiah says, come to pray. The Canaanite woman's prayer is explicit, "Lord, help me". We must make our desire explicit before God. Tell him what you want. Name it. Petition God. Pope John Paul 11 says that “our prayer becomes all the more insistent and trusting when we say, Jesus, I trust in You”. That is exactly what the Canaanite woman does by her request. She keeps calling on Christ to help. She knows that the Jesus' moment will surely come.

Patience: This Canaanite woman is super patient. Earlier in the passage, Jesus doesn't say a word to her (Matt. 15:23). Then the disciples ask that she be dismissed, yet she isn't deterred. She remains patient. She recognizes that the journey of faith must be accompanied by patience. She waits for the right time. She doesn’t lose her calm. She does not pursue distractions. She is not upset by what seems to be insult for her tribe or a personal attack. She knows that patience has to be tried to achieve its result. She gets what she wants in the end.

Perseverance: When Jesus says to her, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to little dogs" (v.27), is he insulting the Canaanite woman? It sounds like an insult. Of course, the Jews have nasty notion about Gentiles that they classify Gentiles as dogs. Certainly, the woman is not part of the "lost sheep of the House of Israel". Yet she perseveres. Perseverance is the endpoint of the patient rope, and the Canaanite woman recognizes that. She admits her unworthiness before God but at the same time, makes her way into the domains of the elect of Israel. She doesn't need to belong to the house of Israel in as much as she gets what she wants. Her response implies that faithful, patient dogs eat the fattest bones, they gain from their master's leftover. Hence Christ tells her, "Woman, you have great faith. Let your desire be granted".

The question for us is, how long have we been pleading with God for a need? Let’s emulate the Canaanite woman. Pray, be patient, and persevere, the result will come in the end. Sometimes, they don't come so easy, sometimes we are tested and tried before having our prayers answered. Yet, Jesus knows the right time. Just know that your faith can be stretched a little. A patient perseverance produces strong faith.