20th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year C – The Persistent Canaanite Woman
20th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year C
The Persistent Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28)
I often get asked as a priest what my favorite scripture passage is the Canaanite Woman and I have to say today’s scripture reading is the answer I mostly give. I never get tired of coming back to this dialogue between this desperate, witty and persevering woman and Jesus. It’s not an easy one to understand, yet so intriguing. Like all hard gospel stories it packs a spiritual punch. It’s precisely stories that bug us and that bother us that we should pay special attention.
We are in Tyre and Sidon and so outside the territory of Israel, on the fringes, in today’s Southern Lebanon. It’s very evocative, its Jesus going towards those on the fringes, the marginalized, downtrodden, and rejected. God’s salvific purposes are for the whole world. She is a foreigner and in those times people had very nationalistic identities, she would have been looked down upon as not being Jewish. Secondly she is a woman and so a 2nd or 3rd class citizen in the eyes of the men of her times. It was very unusual for a woman to address a man in public, biblical scholars say it is a sure sign she was a widow, otherwise her husband would have spoken for her. So she is triply disadvantaged.
She approaches Jesus and calls out; “Have pity on me, Lord Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon”.
When many of his own people were rejecting him, misunderstanding him or even trying to kill him, this pagan woman, this Canaanite, acknowledges him by his proper Jewish title. Lord and Son of David. She represents thereby the longing of the whole world for God’s justice, mercy and love. She senses correctly enough where this is to be found, in Israel, this specially chosen people.
This very perceptive woman comes to Jesus with a very legitimate request. Not for herself and not something trivial. She speaks of this demon that’s tormenting her daughter. For someone form the 1st century, she could have meant any number of evils… psychological, physical, because people saw diseases as caused directly by the demons. But whatever it was it must have been something pretty severe.
And now comes probably the most amazing and mysterious line in all of the new testament; faced with this woman’s desperate cry for help…”But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her” v.23. Jesus is silent, sound familiar? The prayer of this woman mirrors our own prayer experiences. How could Jesus, who is the embodiment of God’s compassionate love possibly, resist this earnest plea? We pour out to God our hearts and…pure silence… but instead of giving up (like a lot of us do) this woman see’s the silence of Jesus not as refusal but as an invitation to go deeper, her desire begins to grow her heart begins to expand.
We all have had similar experience, you ask God for something, not out of selfishness, not something trivial, and you are met with silence. It bugs us, we are meant to identify with this woman. Well she is not put off, she continues to pester, to beg…she turns to the apostles, to the leaders of the Church and as often happens she is left dealing with bureaucratic and ecclesiastical brush-off’s!
“Send her away, she keeps calling out after us”…So much for the Lords chosen instruments! At this there is a line from Jesus that’s even more devastating than his silence.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. How terrible that must have been for the woman to hear. Not just indifference but rejection. And not for something she did but for who she is. It’s not her fault that she’s a Canaanite, that she is not a daughter of Israel.
Nonetheless, there is no stopping this lady. She prostrates herself before him, the position of adoration, and worship. Instead of giving up out of frustration it leads her even deeper into prayer. Acknowledging just who he is, she does not worship the Holy man. She goes deeper into adoration and with touching simplicity states ...“Lord help me”. (He is helping but not as she thinks he should). Think of the times now you have beseeched God for something. When you have opened up your heart but were faced with silence, rejection, rebuffs.
But here comes the crushing response, she is met with silence, then she is met with a first rebuff, now this; Jesus says “It’s not right to take the food of the children and to give it to the dogs”.
We have gone to an outright direct insult. He has called her a dog. And for the people of Jesus’s time that was an especially denigrating remark. How much can this woman take? But she is not put off, out of her mouth comes one of the great snappy responses in literary history. What delight we still take in her lines. “Lord even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their master”.
Jesus has just put her in her place, we are nothing and He is God. We don’t even deserve to be in his presence. We are just a grain of sand in this vast universe. It’s always important to be conscious of that when we enter into contact with God.
Jesus is testing this woman, not in a negative way, not playing with her. But in order that she might come to know just how great her faith is, He is preparing her to receive the gift he wants to give her. Someone asked St Augustine onetime; “How come God doesn’t respond to our prayers, how come we are met so often with silence?” His answer was; “That you might be inspired to persevere in prayer and thereby allow your heart to expand. So as to receive the gift that God wants to give you”.
Suppose you pray for something and right away you are given it. You might not be in position properly to appreciate it. But now you are made to wait, and wait, and wait… through silence, rejection, your heart grows, your soul expands, and now finally it wants to receive what God wants to give. So this woman whom Jesus obviously loves, he tries her, tests her, and she perseveres. What others saw as a rejection she saw as
God calling her to go deeper into prayer, adoration, into him
Are we being tried and tested by the same Christ? What’s our reaction? Discouragement? Walk away? May our response be that of this woman, perseverance in prayer, humble audaciousness, faith, that we might be ready to receive the gifts that God wants to give us with open hearts.
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