Readings: Isaiah 56:1,6-7; Romans 11:13-15,29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Theme: ‘Woman, great is your Faith’ (Mt 15:28)
There is no more powerful force in this world than the love of a mother for her child. In truth, a mother’s love is the clearest human embodiment of that love which is God’s way of being. Today’s gospel reading shows the love and faith of a distraught mother who approaches Jesus to cure her seriously ill daughter. It is a strangely disturbing yet inspiring story which illustrates the length to which a mother will go out of love for the child of her womb.
The story begins with Jesus and his disciples leaving their homeland and crossing over into the non-Jewish territory of Tyre and Sidon (present-day Lebanon). We are not sure why Jesus decided to leave Galilee. Perhaps it was because of the opposition he faced from some of his fellow Jews, scandalised by his rather relaxed attitude to Jewish purity laws and rituals. In any case, as he enters foreign territory, he is approached by a woman whose daughter is seriously disturbed. Desperate to find some solution to her terrible predicament, she throws caution to the winds and shouts out: ‘Sir, Son of David, take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil’ (Mt 15:22). Matthew tells us that the woman was a Canaanite. This means she was a gentile and member of an ethnic group despised by the Jews, who regarded the Canaanites as idolaters and, therefore, ritually unclean. This perhaps explains the initial reluctance of Jesus to have anything to do with her.
Fortunately, her awareness of her lowly status in the eyes of Jews does not deter this determined woman from approaching Jesus and pleading with him for help. We can presume she is aware of Jesus’ reputation as a healer. Undaunted by his initial silence – ‘he answered her not a word’ (Mt 15:23), or by his insulting words – ‘It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the house dogs’ (Mt 15: 26), she continues to plead her cause with intelligence and humour, saying: Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’ (Mt 15: 27). In an extraordinary reversal of Jesus’ usual interactions with foreigners, Jesus is outwitted by this formidable woman. Taking her cue from the proverb Jesus used to refuse her request, she invites Jesus to look at her situation from the point of view of a despised outcast (‘a dog’). Her response clearly stuns Jesus, bringing him to realise that the compassion she has for her stricken daughter reflects that of his heavenly Father for all his children.
Completely won over by the woman’s faith, courage, humility and wit, Jesus answers her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish’ (Mt 15:28). Matthew tells us that ‘from that moment her daughter was well again’. Through her faith and persistence, the Canaanite woman gets what she came for, the healing of her daughter. And she is presented by Jesus as a model of faith with words he used only for one other person (also a foreigner) that he met in the course of his public ministry.
We may well wonder why Jesus resists this woman’s plea for so long. It seems so out of keeping with his customary response to all who seek his help. In this instance, Jesus is presented as reflecting the prejudice of his fellow Jews toward gentiles – a prejudice shared by the disciples of Jesus and by the first Christians, all of whom were Jews. As Peter tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, it was ‘forbidden for Jews to mix with people of another race and to visit them’ (Acts 10: 28). It took a lengthy period of divine pedagogy before the early Christians realised that Gentiles could be filled with the Spirit of God and were also called to become followers of Jesus.
Following an extraordinary vision, Peter eventually came to realise that, for God, no one is profane or unclean (cf. Acts 10: 9-16, 28). However, it was Paul, originally a strict Jew, and member of the Pharisee party, who, following his conversion, grasped the implications of the all-embracing reach of God’s love and mercy, and spearheaded the early Church’s mission to the gentiles. As he states in our second reading today, ‘I have been sent to the pagans as their apostle, and I am proud of being sent’ (Rom 11:13).
It may seem surprising us today to realise that it took so long for the early Church to accept the teaching of Isaiah (an Israelite prophet who lived in the eighth century before Christ) and become the Lord’s agents in the creation of ‘a house of prayer for all peoples’ (Is 56:7). The question, of course, that we should ask is, if we, disciples of Jesus in the twenty-first century, have yet fully embraced that same challenge. The current synodal process in the Church prompts us to ask: Who are the people who feel unwelcome in the House of God today, and what are we doing to reach out to them? Today’s gospel story invites us to let ourselves be questioned by the presence of the ‘Canaanites’ in our midst, to listen to them, and respond to their demands for respect and dignity. For we can be certain that, in listening to them, we are opening our minds and hearts to the voice of God, for whom no one is ever a stranger.
Michael McCabe SMA
To listen to an alternative Homily for this Sunday, from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below.