Today’s gospel is strange, don’t you think? It is embarrassing
too, since it seems to depict Jesus in an unflattering light. A
desperate woman has come seeking help for her tormented daughter.
Since she is a Canaanite, an outsider to the Jewish faith, Jesus
treats her abruptly. First, he ignores her then, in the parlance of
the day, he refers to non-Jews, as "dogs."
If the story does anything, it certainly gets us on the side of
the "under dog" – we want to cheer the woman on, "Don’t give up!
He’ll give in!" How strange, to side with a petitioner, hoping
Jesus’ heart will soften towards the mother. It is not the usual
stance we take when we hear a person in need invoke Jesus’ help.
Usually he is the compassionate one, eager to help those who exhibit
need and faith in him. But not in today’s story. Is Jesus really as
indifferent as he first seems? What’s going on here?
What will help us enter today’s story is to begin by reflecting
on our basic faith in Jesus. What do we believe about his humanity?
Most of us, I dare say, were raised with a strong affirmation of
Jesus’ divinity. He is, we believe, the eternal Word of God made
flesh. Less emphasized in our formation was an equally true doctrine
of our faith: Jesus was truly human. We have to keep these two
truths in balance. But we often tend to emphasize one side of the
truth of Jesus’ identity; we favor his divinity. What has been
neglected, at least in my upbringing, is the equally important truth
that Jesus was fully human.
So ask yourself: If someone knocked on his door, would Jesus know
who was there before he opened it? Traditionally we would not
hesitate in answering, "Yes, he was God and knew everything." Taking
that perspective, we would approach Jesus’ rough treatment of the
woman in today’s text by claiming that he knew all along what he
intended to do and was testing the woman’s faith. And the woman does
Her faith has pushed her beyond her usual boundaries. She is a
Canaanite and so has left her homeland to go out to Jesus. Remember
that the Canaanites were the original inhabitants of the Promise
Land and had been pushed out by the Israelites. The conflicts
between the Jews and the Canaanites were ancient and the woman had
taken a risk when she entered enemy territory. She had the courage
to leave the security of the familiar to venture into a place of
tension in order to get help from Jesus. It’s possible that, in
making the journey, the woman was acknowledging the priority of the
Jews and their faith as a place to find a gracious God willing to
help her. Her desperation and courage are shown in her going to
Jesus unaccompanied by a male guardian – something unusual for women
of that time.
The woman’s faith is also shown in her persistence with Jesus.
She is not easily dissuaded, even when Jesus refers to throwing the
"children’s" (the Jews) food to the "dogs" (the Gentiles). In the
original language the word Jesus used is "puppies," not the harsher
sounding "dogs." We sense Jesus is open to the woman and has pulled
back from the way his Jewish contemporaries would have referred to
her, as one of the "dogs." The woman insists she has some rights,
even though she belongs to the "dogs" – after all the "dogs" eat the
scraps from the table. She seems to be implying her belief that God
will feed both the "children" and the "dogs" – Gentiles and Jews.
Jesus has just been criticized by the Pharisees for his disciples
(and by extension, Jesus) not observing dietary and ritual cleansing
rules (15: 1-20). He called the religious leaders hypocrites who
only payed lip service to God. In contrast, Jesus praised the
Canaanite woman for having great faith. One of the very people the
religious leaders would have despised for their religious and
ethical practices receives the highest praise from Jesus. So, who
are the truly pious and observant in Jesus’ eyes? Those who see in
him God’s gracious desire to heal, forgive and welcome to the table.
At that table, as at our eucharistic table today, God serves the
best bread to those who are hungry.
The disciples were all too ready to dismiss the woman. But, as it
turns out, she exhibits more faith than even they have, for she sees
that the God Jesus proclaims includes all people, even those
believed unworthy by the pious and observant. God doesn’t count
class or ethnic standing as an entitlement to God’s favor. All
people of faith receive and find a receptive ear in God.
Back to our earlier question: If someone knocked at the door
would Jesus know who it was before opening it?" With a strong
emphasis on his divinity and a lesser one on his humanity, the
answer would be, "Yes, of course." However, in recent years we have
come to a renewed appreciation of Jesus’ humanity through our
reinvigorated studies of scripture. For example, Paul says that
Christ emptied himself, "taking the form of a slave, being born in
human likeness, one like us in all things but sin (Phil. 2:
6-7). In Hebrews we are told Jesus was "tempted in every way that we
are, yet never sinned" (4: 15). Again in Hebrews, Jesus "learned
obedience from what he suffered." After his parents found the boy
Jesus in the temple Luke tells us he returned with them to his home,
"was obedient to them" and "progressed in wisdom and age and grace
before God and humans" (2: 51-52). From this biblical perspective we
observe that Jesus, like all humans, did not come into this world
fully developed and all-knowing, but like us he grew, "in wisdom and
age and grace before God and humans."
From this second perspective we might say that when Jesus
encountered the woman and heard her request, he was expressing his
first intention: to preach his message to "the lost sheep of the
house of Israel." But when he saw the woman’s strong faith in him,
especially after just being rejected by those who should have known
better, the religious leaders, he then modified his mission plan.
The woman was a clear sign to Jesus that God’s salvation was
meant for all people and all nations – not just for the Jews.
Today’s encounter with the Canaanite woman shows a change in Jesus’
human consciousness and his human understanding of God’s plan for
humanity. How does this change take place? By the woman’s
persistence and unwillingness to accept a narrow and restrictive
view of God. She realized birth and religious origins cannot hold
back the outpouring of God’s love on all people. If we make God too
small and puny in love we have not heard the gospel.
Thus, we have two general paths of entry into this story. One,
with stress on Jesus’ divinity, seeing his behavior as the
all-knowing Lord who draws out of a Gentile the faith that will be
preached "to the ends of the earth." The other approach views the
human Jesus in an exchange that helps him grow in his mission
towards all nations.
The early church, and even our present one, would struggle with
the message of inclusivity being affirmed in today’s gospel. Even
after the resurrection some in the church thought Jesus’ message
should be restricted to Israel, even though Matthew’s gospel ends
with the risen Jesus’ mandate to go into the whole world and preach
the gospel (28: 18-20).
God has included us in Jesus’ message of forgiveness and
reconciliation. We didn’t do anything to earn that inclusion, it was
handed to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and
we have accepted the invitation to the table where the food of God’s
reign is given us. Gathered at this table we hear the risen Jesus’
mandate to proclaim the message to all.
Are there any people or groups who are automatically included in
our circle of friends and church members? Are any overlooked or
ignored? Whom do we consider superior? Or, inferior and not worth
our time? In other words, who are the Canaanites in our lives who
are ignored, or quickly brushed aside? Jesus heard the woman’s voice
and accepted her. Am I also open to the voices who call out to me
for help daily? We are tying to respond to the gospel we have
received by doing to others what has been done for us. Just as our
God has listened and responded to us, so we offer a willing ear and
respond to those who express their needs to us.
for a link to this Sunday’s readings:
A person cannot observe what is right and do what is just without
seeking solidarity with others in common causes for the common good.
As St. Pope John Paul II writes in "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis"
(On Social Concern, 1987), solidarity "is not a feeling of vague
compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people
both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering
determination to commit oneself to the common good. That is to say
the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really
responsible for all." It is also important to be perfectly clear
about the meaning of "common good." Pope Francis explains the term
in this way: [common good] "is much more than the sum of individual
interests. It moves from "what is best for me" to "what is best for
everyone". It embraces everything which brings a people together:
common purpose, shared values, ideas which help us to look beyond
our limited individual horizons" (7/8/15). Solidarity and the common
good are two key elements of Catholic social teaching as we strive
to be a "universal" church.
What are our tasks in undertaking solidarity? Marie J. Giblin,
PhD, and Chair of the Theology Department at Xavier University,
writes in a "Catholic Update" on solidarity (2007) that "The first
task of solidarity is the willingness to be educated even when the
information makes us uncomfortable. The second challenging task is
to find ways to do something about the knowledge one gains. This is
a question of morally guided imagination, which church members
have." On the first task to educate ourselves, adult Catholics often
do not avail themselves of learning opportunities to widen their
world view by stepping out of their box to learn about others’
lives. Many wonderful seminars are offered in area parishes that
either are under-attended or filled with the same familiar faces.
Catholicism goes beyond the Sunday Mass to be a way of life. This
is where the second task as Catholics comes into action. . .what to
do with the knowledge that has been gained. The answer is simple,
respond after becoming informed. We have many social justice causes
here at Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in need of your "morally guided
imagination." Check it out under "Get Involved" on our website.
Become truly "Catholic" in solidarity for the common good.
Director of Social
Holy Name of Jesus
4. "First Impressions" is a service to preachers and those
wishing to prepare for Sunday worship. It is sponsored by the
Dominican Friars. If you would like "First Impressions" sent
weekly to a friend, send a note to fr. John Boll, OP at the above