Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time (A): Matthew 15:21-28
Every generation has had its favorite images of Jesus. Since the 1960’s, we have tended to stress the ‘softer’ side of Jesus – his compassion, his openness, his willingness to forgive, his inclusivity. In other words, we have emphasized those aspects of Jesus which seem to fit best with the predominant values of our own culture. Many sayings and deeds of Jesus appear to fit this pattern.
But every now and then, we come across something like today’s Gospel reading.
A Canaanite woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter. At first, Jesus ignores her. Then, as she persists, he tells her that he has come “only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. When she asks again, Jesus’ tone becomes sharper: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs”. The woman again asks, taking Jesus’ response into account. He then praises her great faith and heals her daughter.
Still, Jesus’ initial silence, and that line about “dogs”, seem very out of character to us. They don’t fit into our image of Jesus. How do we make sense of this?
A number of Bible scholars have offered explanations. Some say that Jesus was speaking in a humorous way when he spoke the “dogs” line, and that he wanted to see if the woman would catch the humor. Others say that Jesus was simply exhausted and “caught with his compassion down”, and spoke as he did because he wanted to be left alone. Still others claim that Jesus, being but a man of his age, had a certain degree of bigotry in him against foreigners and women, and that this Canaanite woman “trips up” and “corrects” Jesus by her witty response.
Each of these explanations has a certain appeal. But each fails in one way or another. For one thing, the idea of Jesus having a sense of humor appeals to us. However, nothing in the story itself tells us that Jesus’ comments are to be taken humorously. Secondly, we have all known times when our own compassion seemed “down” due to stress or fatigue or some other kind of pressure. Yet Jesus shows plenty of compassion in many other instances in the Gospels when he is under a lot of stress. Finally, prejudice against foreigners and women (and other people) is not unknown, even in our own nation. We all have some degree of prejudice lurking in us, if we are at all honest with ourselves. However, it’s not easy to square the concept of Jesus having such prejudices with our faith in the sinlessness of Jesus, not to mention our belief that he is not only truly human but also truly divine. Moreover, Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, has already shown an openness to foreigners (8:5-13) and women (9:20-22), among others.
It is also significant to note that three of the four Gospel writers saw fit to include this story. None of them had to include it. There were many stories about Jesus floating around in the early Church. The ones we have in the Gospels were chosen because, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they were seen as good news, as revealing something important about Jesus and the life of faith.
What, then, can we say about this Gospel story?
Traditionally, the story of the Canaanite woman has been understood as Jesus testing her, first by his silence, and then by his “dogs” remark. This is one pointer in the right direction. In the Old Testament, there are a number of situations where God tests the faith of individuals or of the people as a whole.
One of the best-known tests is that of Abraham. Abraham finally has Isaac, the son of the promise, the one through whom God would fulfill his promise of making of Abraham’s descendants a great nation. But then God, without any explanation, tells Abraham to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice – something that seems to contradict everything God had told Abraham up until now. Abraham maintains his faith that somehow God could sort it all out – even if Abraham couldn’t – and proceeds to do as God commanded, until God stops him and praises his faith. Similarly, this Canaanite woman, faced with the silence and then the comments of Jesus that seem to contradict her hopes, still persists in faith that Jesus can – and will – heal her daughter. Like Abraham, her faith is praised. A foreigner has a faith like Abraham’s. Therefore, foreigners can be blessed like Abraham was. This was truly good news for the Gentiles of the day. It is worth remembering that, in last Sunday’s Gospel reading, Peter is told that he has “little faith” as he needed some kind of a sign – he wanted to be able to walk on water! This woman has “great faith”. She asked for no sign. She trusted that Jesus, the Son of David, could cure her daughter.
Another story that is part of the background is the story of Naaman the Syrian. Naaman, a foreigner, comes to Israel, seeking to be healed of leprosy, and eventually finds the prophet Elisha. Interestingly, the prophet himself ignores Naaman at first. Then, Elisha’s servant tells Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan. Naaman is insulted at the hint that the waters of Israel are better than those of his homeland, and is about to storm off when his own servants convince him to give it a try. He does, and is healed. In the same way, the Canaanite woman faces Jesus’ silence, but persists. Then, she receives a comment that implies that the Israelites have an advantage over foreigners. She accepts this, persists in faith, and obtains the grace she was asking for.
What’s going on here?
In this story, as in many Gospel stories, we see the collision of two basic truths that are often in tension with one another: on the one hand, Israel is the Chosen People. Salvation, Jesus says in John’s Gospel, is from the Jews. God called a particular people and then began to reveal himself to them in many ways. On the other hand, Israel isn’t called merely for itself. Israel is intended to be a light for the nations. Through Israel, God would reconcile all peoples to himself. All of this would be fulfilled through Jesus. Jesus heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman once she acknowledges that the people of Israel are the “children” and that others would be fed through them. Yes, the language Jesus uses is strong, but later on he would call Peter “Satan”. In fact, it is the strength of the language, and even its apparent offensiveness, that makes us stop and ask ourselves what is going on. Jesus, in the Gospels, is often willing to push language to extremes to bring out a point.
What can we learn from all this?
First of all, some sayings of Jesus will not be easy to understand. They will, at times, challenge our presuppositions. They will, at times, challenge the presuppositions of the culture we live in. Will our faith in Jesus remain, even as we try to understand and follow his more difficult teachings?
Secondly, the graces we need from Jesus do not always come quickly or easily. We need persistence in prayer and persistence in faith.
Thirdly, our faith will be tested in various ways. It may be from the very fact that the world offers us so many alternate explanations, each of which can seem reasonable at times. Or, it may be that someone in the Church whose vocation is to act and speak in the name of Jesus does so in ways that seem to contradict our faith or our expectations. Someone might say something to us that feels harsh or insulting. Whatever the intention of the speaker, the fact that we feel insulted should tell us something. Maybe there is a pride within us that needs to be dealt with and tamed in some way.
Finally, we will never be able to say that we fully understand any Scripture passage. As God’s word, it will always bring us new insights, new consolations, and new challenges. What I have written here is by no means THE explanation of our Gospel passage for this Sunday. It’s merely a few helpful (or so I pray) comments. The more we ponder and pray over any line of Scripture, the more the Holy Spirit will reveal to us.