20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle A
When I saw that the Gospel for this Sunday is about a desperate Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus looking for healing for her daughter, I was a little hesitant to write since there are so many mothers who could much more easily identify with this woman. But then I decided I could attempt to share some thoughts because this Gospel is not only about a woman who is intent on having Jesus pay attention to her very personal and specific request to help her daughter; but because it is mainly a story about exclusion due to race, nationality, gender, religion, etc. It is about insiders and outsiders. Who belongs and who doesn’t belong. And it is a story about a faith great enough to overcome barriers.
The story takes place in the territory of Tyre and Sidon, the seacoast area north of Galilee. Tyre and Sidon were pagan cities. Jesus had just had a confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees, who questioned him and his disciples regarding what they deemed to be breaches of the laws of purity. Jesus probably withdrew to pray and be renewed. Megan McKenna, a scripture scholar, suggests that Jesus was struggling with the sense of who he was as God’s prophet, sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; as well as the painful realization that they did not want him, were not listening to him and were growing more hostile to him by the day.
In this story the woman is clearly an outsider. She was totally at a disadvantage: she was a foreigner, a pagan, a woman in a man’s world, and she had a sick child whom she was terribly worried about. She repeatedly calls out to Jesus who by this time was something of a celebrity, a man who belonged to that nation that conquered her ancestors, a nation who considered themselves the chosen people of God. Jesus had with him a group of followers, the disciples. The disciples are the insiders. The woman doesn’t whisper or pull Jesus aside to make her wishes known. She keeps crying out. What do we do when someone embarrasses themselves or us? We simply wish that they would go away. The disciples, trying to keep her away from Jesus, become very annoyed at her and ask him to get rid of her. Even Jesus tried to ignore her. “He gave her no word of response.” When you need something for someone you love do you allow your loved one to continue to suffer or do you swallow your pride and make your request? So she goes to Jesus and speaks to him anyway. Now Jesus had a mandate from God and he knew what it was. “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” and even though it seemed that they did not recognize him or his mission, he felt that salvation should come first to the Jews and then to all the peoples of the earth. She couldn’t see the distinction. She knew she and her child were worthy of God’s love, care, and Jesus’ attention. Why else would she go to Jesus for help?
Although not a Jew, she uses the messianic titles of Lord, Son of David. She shows she believes in the messiah by her posture. It says she “did him homage” by either kneeling or lying prostrate & venerating him. The woman recognized God’s presence and power manifested in Jesus. She persisted even to the point of making a scene, shouting after Jesus, then arguing shamelessly with him. She refused to be offended by his initial lack of response or by his claim that she was an outsider. We have a saying, “Charity begins at home” which is similar to what Jesus was telling her, that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Not even his reference to the fact that gentiles were called “dogs” by Jews could put her off. Scavengers who ate what-ever they found, dogs were considered unclean, as were those who were not members of the covenant community. Jesus had just finished telling the Scribes & Pharisees it was not what enters one’s mouth that defiles but what comes out of the mouth that defiles one. What came out of her mouth was an expression of faith in Jesus as the Messiah. She had faith in his power over demons. She ignored his reference by her humble, intelligent, yet humorous retort, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s tables.” She then merited some of the highest praise paid by Jesus to anyone in the gospels: “O woman, great is your faith.” This outsider deeply believed him and his power to heal. It was through her perseverance that she overcame what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles. The result was that she received a hearing and the healing of her daughter.
This reading tells us that the Lord is compassionate even when it seems that He is not. This gospel tells us that in the divine scheme of things there are no hard and fast boundaries. There are no voices unworthy of being heard. In this gospel the outsider (not only a sinful Canaanite in the Jewish way of thinking, but a woman!) challenges Jesus and the prevailing view about who belongs and who is worthy.
The Canaanite woman already possessed the God-given seed of faith when she approached Jesus from the “outside.” I’m sure her bold demand shook things up a bit in that early circle of Christians. It taught them about the value of inclusiveness. To reach out to others in a way that is authentic and generous. That is what we all have in common with her; our God-given faith in the love and power of the Lord to bring inclusiveness to the family of God. Father James Smith tells us that in this gospel everybody wins. “The disciples learn how to work among foreigners, the daughter is healed. Jesus is happy and the woman gets not only what she wanted, but what she needed.”
Mary Jane Vigil, OSB