August 20, 2017
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
Jesus’ treatment of the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel, by today’s standards, seems rude, insulting, and prejudiced. Here He was, beseeched by a distraught mother whose daughter was besieged by a demon – and He ignored her pleas. She begged Him for mercy, and what did Jesus do at first? He says nothing. And his disciples suggest to Him that He send her away, and He replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Still the woman persisted, and her dogged faith was rewarded. Her daughter was healed.
So was Jesus really being rude to her? Or, as some other commentators have suggested elsewhere, did the woman end up changing Jesus’ mind?
Of course not. Jesus was doing two things here. One, while His mission was to attend to the lost sheep of Israel, Jesus demonstrated to the disciples that the gospel was ultimately for all, and that their mission would be to spread it throughout the world.
Secondly, Jesus was testing the woman’s faith. St Augustine wrote: “Christ showed himself indifferent to her, not in order to refuse her his mercy but rather to inflame her desire for it” (Sermo 77, 1: PL 38, 483). He could have easily cured her daughter at the moment of her initial plea. He knew her heart, and He knew the depth of her love and concern for her daughter. Jesus never had any intention of not answering her prayer. But for her sake – and ours – He wanted her to be an even stronger, bolder witness to the faith she held. Jesus pushed her beyond her limits, prodding her to trust Him more deeply than perhaps she believed she had the capacity to do so.
Jesus wants all of us to have such faith – to believe beyond our strength to still believe. To throw ourselves upon His mercy, all the while accepting that our prayers might not be answered exactly as we expect – whether in scope, kind, or number. Humility demands we recognize we are barely worthy of the scraps, while hope kindles the flame within us to continuously cry out “Lord, have mercy!” because we know He loves us.
Image via Wikimedia [Public Domain]