20th Sunday in O.T. (A); August 20, 2017
Is 56:1,6-7 Ps 67 Rom 11:13-15,29-32 Mt 15:21-28
Deacon Jim McFadden; SJB
Today’s Gospel maybe one of the most problematic in the entire New Testament as on the surface it seems to portray Jesus as a chauvinist. Jesus leaves God’s own holy land and enters pagan territory where he encounters a Syro-Phoenician (in Mark’s Gospel) or a Canaanite (in Matthew’s account) woman. She comes to Jesus and tells him of her daughter who is troubled by a demon. Jesus not only ignores her, but also puts her down in a very blunt way that we find offensive.
In his attitude toward the woman, we see the human Jesus as a product of his culture. He sees the woman as a member of Canaan, a nation that Israel hates the most. She is also a threat to Jesus’ respectability, because she is an unattended woman who publicly accosts Jesus and speaks to him directly by shouting “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon” (Mt 15:21).
She may be both assertive and noisy, but she’s insightful. She knows who Jesus is. She calls him “Lord, Son of David,” which are two comprehensive titles: Jesus is Lord, intimately connected to God (the Father) and therefore meant for all mankind. But, he is also the Son of David, who is the fulfillment of the Messianic hope that originated in the Jewish tradition. So, Jesus is both the universal and the particular savior—the woman understands that.
Since she knows who Jesus is, she knows what Jesus can give: She asks for mercy. That’s why she persists. She will do whatever it takes for her daughter to be healed. If her daughter is going to be healed by Jesus, she has got to advocate on her behalf; so, Jesus’ mercy will flow through her into her daughter. In other words she will be a conduit for God’s mercy.
But, in the short term “… he did not answer her at all” (Mt 15:23). So why doesn’t he talk with her? She is only asking the Messiah to fulfill his calling and expel the demons who torment God’s children. But, Jesus refuses to acknowledge her presence, let alone honor her request.
Believing that the pushy Canaanite woman is the problem, the disciples come to his rescue and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). The woman, however, is not the problem. To be blunt, it lies in Jesus’ mind. He has construed his identity and mission within the boundaries of Israel, and the Canaanite woman is an outsider. He belongs to Israel, who like David will gather all the tribes into one Kingdom again. The woman is outside David’s house. Jesus is basically saying, “I am Jew, you’re not; so your problem is no concern of mine.” Undaunted, she lays prostrate and says again, “Lord, help me” (v. 25).
Notice in this plea that there is a subtle omission. When she addressed Jesus the first time, she called him, “Lord, Son of David,” which acknowledge both his particular origins as a Jew and his universal outreach as Lord. She knows that Jesus is stressing his Jewishness at the expense of the wider humanity. The result is that she is outside him and her pleas go unheard, which means her daughter will not be healed. So, this resourceful woman, who will do whatever it takes for her daughter to be healed, drops the ‘Son of David’ and simply says, “Lord, help me.” To which Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26).
Oh, my goodness!—this is where the dialogue becomes very
troublesome: Jesus just called a human being a ‘dog.’ Really?
By using the word “dogs”, Jesus shows that he has absorbed the biases of his Jewish culture to see non-Jews as inferior. To deny that Jesus was not influenced by cultural biases of his time is to make Jesus less than human. But as the story unfolds, Jesus will break out of the limitation of his Jewish identity and come to see his mission as the universal savior.
At this point the woman gives off one of the best one-liners in all of Scripture: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” (v. 27). By coming back with that zinger, she again is emphasizing Jesus’ universal outreach by calling him ‘Lord,’ the one who is meant for everyone. She may not be a daughter of Israel, but she is eager for any food that Jesus has to offer.
Jesus is won over as he answered her, “ O Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (v.28a). The title ‘woman’ that Jesus uses is not simply a description of her gender. And it is certainly a far cry from dog. The ‘O’ suggests a shock of recognition; today, we’d say ‘Wow!—you’ve given me a sudden revelation. The pestering one, whom the disciples wanted to get rid of, is the bearer of a deeper truth. This is her great faith. Through persistence and cleverness she reminded Jesus of his true identity. He is a Jew. But, more importantly, he is Lord of the universe.
As a consequence of this woman’s act of faith, Jesus does something remarkable for her. Jesus is not usually swayed by the wishes of others, whether it be Pharisees, disciples, or individual seekers. He is driven only by the will of the Father. Therefore, it is remarkable for Jesus say to this woman, “Let it be done to you as you wish” (Mt 15:28b). Could it be that when Jesus was listening to this woman, he was hearing the voice of his Father? His Father’s voice may come from the sky as we heard at Jesus’ baptism or a cloud at his Transfiguration, but it also speaks from the earth, through people who search for mercy in a demon-filled world. Whenever and wherever Jesus hears his Father’s voice, he is alert, ready, in touch, flowing. And that is what happened.
“And her daughter was healed instantly” (v. 28c).
Once the block is removed, mercy flows freely.
Brothers and sister, this gospel is a cautionary tale to all of us. We too can absorb our culture’s attitudes without consciously realizing it. Time and time again, we need to remind ourselves and each other that that first and foremost we are God’s beloved. When we live out of that love, mercy flows from Jesus’ Sacred Heart into us; and from us into situations where it is deeply needed. Amen.