Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
IS 56:1, 6-7; PS 67:2-3, 5-6, 8; ROM 11: 13-15, 29-32; MT 15: 21-28
A young couple to whom I am close has twin girls who are now eight years old. One of the twins was born with a rare genetic condition. It is a complex syndrome with multiple manifestations. In the case of this little girl, it was manifested in serious spinal issues that included two floating vertebrae. Her parents were tenacious in finding out all they could about this condition and in tracking down a surgeon in Iowa who is proficient in performing the delicate surgery that their daughter needed. Her mother was especially dogged in her determination to get the best help possible. After a number of surgeries, this little girl is doing quite well and is mainstreamed in school.
I thought of that girl and her mother as I reflected on this Sunday's Gospel story about the Canaanite woman. It is a Gospel that strikes many people as rather strange. The designation of this woman's identity as "Canaanite" evokes the memory of a people whom Israelites considered to be their enemies. But this desperate mother approaches Jesus, pleading for her tormented daughter. She addresses him with the lofty titles of "Lord" and "Son of David." Jesus' response to her request seems so out of character, doesn't it? He simply ignores her.
Never before in the Gospel has Jesus ignored someone who came to him for help. But when this foreigner asks for help, he is silent. And when she refuses to go away, he responds with an off-putting remark about not taking the food of children and throwing it to the dogs. There must be something going on behind the scenes. There must be a subplot here.
And it seems that, within Matthew's Gospel narrative, there is a subplot here. In Matthew's Gospel, the focus of Jesus' mission is the people of Israel. They are the people of the first covenant, a covenant that Paul tells us is irrevocable. Not until after Jesus' death and resurrection will the mission of Jesus be extended beyond the boundaries of Israel. This woman, a Gentile, does not fit into the scope of Jesus' public ministry.
But she will not go away, will she? And there is something very compelling about the tenacity of her faith. It is in the face of this mother's dogged determination that Jesus' hesitations dissolve. This woman's love for her daughter leads her to take a risk, the risk of looking foolish and ultimately of rejection. But she is able to perceive Jesus with the eyes of faith. She recognizes in him the life-giving presence and power of God. Her faith, coupled with her selfless care for her daughter, leads to the dissolution of the barrier between Jew and Gentile.
Sometimes we persistently pray for something but do not receive the answer that we sought. This experience may lead us to conclude that our faith is not strong enough or even that God is not listening at all. The truth is that we cannot fathom all of the dynamics of God's response to our prayers. Even with the most astute theology, we cannot wrap our minds around the mystery of God's saving action in our lives and in our world. Nevertheless, this Gospel passage invites us to cling to one essential conviction. We can be certain that when we are impelled by loving care to pray for another person, as was the Canaanite woman, our prayer is heard.
Heartfelt prayer for others leads us to deeper communion with Christ and with those we love. And it leads to new life, even when the answer to that prayer is not exactly what we sought, for example, when physical healing of the sick does not take place. It is the new life that comes from the faithful, compassionate presence of Christ, who is always close to us.
God's mercy knows no bounds. God's embrace is universal. The Canaanite woman in Matthew's Gospel is placed before us as a model of selfless love and tenacious faith in Christ. She invites us to beseech Christ out of our love for others and to do so with the faith that he always hears and answers us.
Fr. Robin Ryan, CP
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
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