Persistence, faith and humility

In the Gospel today, we read of the encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman whose daughter is ill.

Aug 18, 2023

(Pieter Lastman)

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)
Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32;
Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28

In the Gospel today, we read of the encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman whose daughter is ill. The portrayal of the scene is rather vivid and those with a good imagination can picture how a frantic woman is chasing after Jesus, asking Him to come and cure her daughter. This is a normal action that any parent will do for their child. The reaction, or non-responsiveness of Jesus, leads us to look deeper into the entire episode.

On a superficial level, one might think that Jesus is callous and without compassion since He is ignoring the Canaanite woman completely. We read throughout the various Gospels that Jesus went everywhere curing the sick but why did He ignore this particular woman? His response to her request may be seen by some to be rather rude and not in character with what we know about Jesus. However, we need to take a closer look at the context of the incident.

The Canaanites were a people who worshipped pagan gods. Unlike the Israelites, who practised a monotheistic religion, the Canaanites practised polytheistic religion and thus were considered pagans by the Israelites. Like many other ancient Near East civilisations of their day, they prayed to a myriad of gods such as the god of fertility, of crops etc. For the Israelites, the commandment they received from God through Moses is very clear — there is to be the worship of only one God and no other. For the Canaanites, worshipping multiple gods meant that they do not fall into the category of those favoured by God.

When Jesus made the statement to the Canaanite woman, telling her that food for the children should not be given to house dogs, He did not mean to insult the woman. In this day and age, we see that as degrading the woman and not respecting the human aspect of the person. This is definitely not the case. The reference is to make the distinction between the God of the Israelites and the gods of the Canaanites. It is an assertion of the superiority of the God of the Israelites over all the other gods, pointing back to the Ten Commandments – worship no other god but God. By making this statement, Jesus wanted to see what kind of reaction or response the woman would make.

The response of the Canaanite woman is one that would surprise anyone. Instead of getting angry or indignant, her retort shows her faith in the healing power of Jesus. Whether or not she knows or acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah is not clear but that is not the subject matter. The important thing here is that her love for her daughter prompts her to put her faith in the healing hands of Jesus. It is her persistence and act of faith that moves Jesus to help her. Jesus does not help the woman because she is shouting and badgering Him. In essence, by making such a remark to her, He is able to draw out her faith that is motivated by love.

This is an important lesson for all of us to learn. Modern society often leads us to believe that if we shout loud enough or assert ourselves hard enough, we will get what we want. Sometimes people use their wealth or status in order to procure what they want. We see this happening all the time, in and out of the Church. But, like the encounter between the Canaanite woman and Jesus, we need to learn to ask with faith and not the volume of our voice. Increasing the volume of our voice and throwing our weight around will get us nowhere. Ultimately, it is our faith and, most important of all, humility. This is the trait that the Canaanite woman displays when she gives her response to Jesus.

Whether we are making a petition to God or making a request to someone, humility will help our request to go further than when we make them in pride. In fact, a genuine prayer is often made out of humility because it is only when we are humble that we are able to acknowledge our need for help. If we are so capable and powerful, why do we need help in the first place? In expressing her humility and her need for help, the Canaanite woman unconsciously expresses her confidence in the divine power of Christ. This, St Paul tells us in the Second Reading from the Letter to the Romans, is the admission that will lead to the resurrection of the dead instead of the rejection of God. As St Vincent de Paul teaches us, God always gives a greater blessing to humble beginnings than to those that start with a chiming of bells.

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