Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time. August 16, 2020
Readings: First Reading Isaiah 56: 1, 6-7; Responsorial Psalm: 67; Second Reading: Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Gospel: Matthew 15:21 – 28
One of the most distinctive (and scandalous) qualities of ancient Israelite religion is the insistence that Israel is the specially chosen people of God. Now, especially today, we have a problem with this sort of language; we much prefer the attitude of inclusivity. Well, this tension is not just a mark of our time; it can be found in the Bible itself. And in point of fact, one of the “places” where the play between particularity and universality is most clearly articulated is in the section of the prophet Isaiah from which our first reading is drawn.
God chose Israel not because they were strong or holy. They were as weak and bad as any other contemporary race of their time. As we know from God’s words, Jews were number one hardheaded and stiff-necked people. Yet God chose them, the weakest of all and made them the strongest to bring His Kingdom on earth. But history reveals that Jewish people failed God out of their primal of instinct of safety network. They were convinced of themselves as the chosen race, exclusively set apart of from God. Unfortunately such conviction enabled them to look down upon the outsiders. In today’s Gospel episode, we find the same anti-gentle attitude among the disciples of Jesus.
The Bible scholars interpret this behavior of Jesus as using this occasion to teach his Gospel message of universalism of salvation to his disciples. It is Jesus’ way to start from where the humanity of disciples existed . He points out that the natural attitude of the disciples was wrong and it did no good for the kingdom of God. He elevates them to understand the sole principle of relation and salvation in God’s kingdom. The label of being an insider is as worthy of praise, as the faith of the outsider. Jesus’ initial silence toward this woman and His seemingly rude words are actions through which Jesus is able to not only purify this woman’s faith, but also give her the opportunity to manifest her faith for all to see. In the end, Jesus cries out, “O woman, great is your faith!”
If we desire to walk down the road of holiness, this story is for us. It’s a story by which we come to understand that great faith comes as a result of purification and unwavering trust. This woman states to Jesus, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” In other words, she begged for mercy despite her unworthiness.
It’s essential to understand that at times God appears to be silent. This is an act of deep love on His part because it is actually an invitation to turn to Him on a very deep level. God’s silence allows us to move from a faith fed by accolades and emotion to a faith fostered by pure trust in His mercy.
The Canaanite woman in our Gospel today (Matt 15:21-28) reminded me of Saint Monica. The woman was refused three times by Jesus before he granted her request. The first time Jesus didn’t answer her. The second refusal was when Jesus refused his disciples’ request on her behalf. The third refusal was when Jesus said the children’s food shouldn’t be thrown to the dogs. By that Jesus meant it was not correct to give her, who was not a Jew, what was meant for the Jews. “Dogs” was a frequent description of Gentiles (non-Jews) at the time of Jesus. Finally, the fourth time, her plea was answered. Jesus said, “Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.” (Matt 15:28) And from that moment her daughter was well again. Like Monica who had received many refusals during almost twenty years of praying for Augustine’s conversion, the Canaanite woman persisted in prayer before God. And her persistent prayer was answered.
We might well ask, “Why did Jesus not answer her prayer sooner? Why leave her in her agony for so long?” As I have told you before human suffering is a mystery and we don’t have the full answer to it, only bits and pieces of the answer. However I think that the following are some of the bits and pieces of the answer. Peter in his first letter tells us that our faith is proved through trials (1 Pet 1:6-7). Think of how Saint Monica strengthened and matured during her nearly twenty years of prayer. If her prayer had been answered on the first day I am quite sure she would not have turned out to be nearly as fine a person as she eventually did. Another bit and piece of the answer is that we believe that for someone of faith all things eventually work together for the better. Paul in Rom 8:28 writes, “by turning everything to their good God co-operates with all those who love him.”
This woman shows great persistence; she did not allow the disciples’ irritation or Jesus’ offhand remark to put her off. She knew what she wanted and she trusted that Jesus could help. In the tradition preserved for us in the Scriptures, Jesus is presented to us as a formidable debater but in this instance the Canaanite woman comfortably wins the debating point. Jesus praises the woman for her faith but what was her faith? What did she believe about Jesus? One would love to know her subsequent history. Did this act of Jesus mark a turning point in her life? We do not know. In a way this pagan woman can give us a lesson on prayer. We are not always happy with our lot or the lot of others, and we should express our real feelings to Christ, not just our sanitized ones. Jesus hears my prayer.
As we endure trials let us have faith like the Canaanite woman and Saint. Monica. Let us not lose hope or give up but let us persist in prayer so that we too may hear the same words of Jesus, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Matt 15:28)
God bless you. Have a wonderful Sunday.