Sunday of week 20 of Ordinary Time


Commentary on Isaiah 56:1,6-7; Romans 11:13-15,29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

WE SEE IN THE GOSPEL TODAY Jesus entering non-Jewish territory, something he very seldom does. We find him in the district of Tyre and Sidon, two coastal cities on the Mediterranean coast (now in present-day Lebanon). Unlike some of the Jewish towns that are linked with Jesus and the Gospel which have disappeared or are in ruins, these two pagan towns still flourish.

A ‘pagan’ woman

Suddenly a Canaanite woman from that region comes us and begins shouting at Jesus. We need to realise that the Canaanites were the traditional enemies of the Jews. They were regarded as pagans and idolators and ritually unclean.

This does not discourage this women in her desperate need. Perhaps even as far as here the reputation of Jesus was known. She cries out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Whether it was really a demon or some illness which led to uncontrolled or uncontrollable behaviour is not really important. There were many sicknesses which were poorly understood at the time and which filled people with fear.

What is important is that her prayer expresses both helplessness and faith. Basically all of us are also helpless and without God there is little that we can do by ourselves. “Without me, you can do nothing,” Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper.

Her faith is expressed in the titles she gives Jesus: ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’. They indicate that she sees in Jesus someone above the ordinary, someone very special. And the title ‘Son of David’ has Messianic overtones.

In spite of that Jesus simply ignores her, as if she did not exist. Do we feel that way sometimes when we make a specially important petition of Jesus? Do we feel that he is very far away? That he is paying no attention? Do we feel like the disciples in the storm when Jesus was fast asleep in the boat? “Don’t you care that we are in danger?”

The disciples are not much better. As the woman keeps shouting after them, they ask Jesus to get rid of her. “For heaven’s sake, give the woman what she wants.” Do they say this out of compassion for her plight? No, but “because she is shouting after us”. To them she is merely a nuisance, and a pagan nuisance as well.  How often have we given in “charity” just to get rid of a bothersome beggar?

Jesus’ mission

Jesus’ reason for not listening to her is that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He seems to be saying that, since she is an outsider, her problem is of no concern to him. In fact, Jesus’ mission and work was almost entirely centred on his own people. The task of passing on his message to others would be left to his disciples. And, as we know from the Acts of the Apostles, they did not realise that at first. It took some special experiences before they realised that the Gentiles could also be filled with the Spirit of God and were being called to be followers of Jesus.

This had already been foretold by the prophet Isaiah in today’s First Reading: “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord and to be his servants…these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their…offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

The woman’s perseverance

The woman is not discouraged by any of these responses. She comes and kneels before him, an act of worship, and prays simply, “Lord, help me.” Jesus’ answer seems quite shocking: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” On another occasion Jesus told his disciples not to cast pearls before swine.

The term “dogs” was a common one for the Gentiles. Dogs were regarded by the Jews as unclean, because they would eat anything given to them, including pork, for instance. The Gentiles, in the eyes of the Jews, who were very particular about what was clean and unclean, were no better than dogs. However, as has been pointed out, everything depends on the tone of voice with which Jesus uttered these words. They could have been spoken with arrogance, contempt and racial superiority. But that would be completely contrary to everything else we know about Jesus.

On the other hand it could have been said in a testing and joking way. “You know very well, my dear woman, that in my community it is not right to take the children’s food and give it to the ‘dogs’!” And she, totally unfazed and taking her cue from his tone of voice, throws back: “Oh yes, Lord, but even the dogs (that means us!) can eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” (The “master’s table”: a little touch of satire on her part? You people, of course, are superior to us.)

Now, Jesus is completely won over by her faith, her confidence and her wit: “Woman, great is your faith!” This is obvious from her tenacity. She will not take No for an answer. Jesus’ response is almost inevitable: “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Trust and prayer

There are a number of lessons from today’s reading. The need for total trust and confidence that Jesus really does care for us, in spite of indications to the contrary.

There is also the need for us to persist in prayer. We must realise that this does not always result in getting what we have asked for. It helps us to see more clearly what God wants for us and what really is the best for us. What we need most is not the carrying out of our own wishes but having the peace and security that can only come from our being in total harmony with God’s will for us, so that his will and mine are identical. I want what he wants.

Thirdly, today’s Gospel is an affirmation that God’s love and mercy are extended to all who call on him in faith and trust, no matter who they are or where they are. That is already affirmed by Isaiah in the First Reading: “Foreigners who have attached themselves to the Lord to him and to love his name and be his servants – all who observe the Sabbath, not profaning it, and cling to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain. I will make them joyful in my house of prayer.” Ironically, these words, written by a Jew about non-Jews, is now to be applied by Christians to Jews and to all people of good will.

As baptised members of the Christian community we have been given special privileges of knowledge and access to God’s love. But we have also serious responsibilities arising from this. One of these responsibilities is to make clear to others by the way we live, speak and act that God’s love and God’s mercy and God’s healing are for them also.

In God’s eyes there are no ‘dogs’. And the food on the Master’s table, the Lord’s Word and his Love and not just the crumbs, is for all without exception.

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