Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
Is 56:1, 6-7, Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8, Rom 11:13-15, 29-32, Mt 15:21-28
Today’s readings remind us how God calls each and every one of us to be a saint. In the first reading, Isaiah prophesizes that people from all over will “join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving [His name, and making His house] a house of prayer for all peoples.” Likewise, Saint Paul tells us that God wants to have mercy on everyone, and that even though we are disobedient, He wants to shower His love upon us. “Not only does God love us with a depth and an intensity that we can scarcely begin to comprehend, but he also invites us to respond to that love.” If we read the Gospel superficially, we might find it odd: after all, Christ seems to ignore the woman, and then offers what seem to be rather harsh responses. Yet, if we look more closely, today’s Gospel offers us five ways that God calls us closer to Himself and that we need to respond. Let’s consider these five details about the interactions between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, to see what it is that Christ does to draw her closer to Himself, and see how they apply to our lives. We will see that Jesus seeks us out, makes use of suffering, asks us to be persistent in prayer, responds to us in a way that makes us grow, and asks us to be humble.
The first detail that might escape our attention is the place. Matthew tell us that as Jesus enters the “region of Tyre and Sidon,” an anonymous Canaanite woman comes out and cries, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.” What’s important here is that Jesus is in pagan territory, dealing with a pagan woman and her pagan daughter. In fact, this is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus leaves Jewish territory and is in the land of the pagans. This woman has no name, and neither does her daughter, and that’s fitting, since, for the disciples and all the Jews, these people were nobodies, just two idolaters in a land of sin. However, for those minutes, those two sinners receive Christ’s undivided attention and love, and, really, not just for those minutes: we know that, from all eternity, Christ foresaw that exchange and looked forward to it. Just as with every person, He loved those two people from before they were born, and, had it not been for this love that brought Christ to them, in their territory, those two would never have encountered Him. Christ always takes the initiative in our lives. This is a good reminder for us that, even in the midst of a world that tries to dehumanize us, to reduce us to a number or to being just one of the crowd, Christ constantly seeks us out individually, as the unique sons and daughters that we are. We can ask ourselves: are we aware of how Christ comes to us each day, how He seeks us out and desires our love?
The second detail that calls our attention is that what draws the woman to Christ is an experience of suffering. Her daughter is being tormented, and she is seeking relief. Suffering is a funny thing; it can push people away from God, or draw them nearer to Him. C. S. Lewis writes that, no matter what, “pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” As the world grows more and more deaf to Christ’s call, it shouldn’t surprise us to see more and more suffering in the world around us; God is calling our attention. We can ask ourselves: how do we make use of the sufferings, big or small, that God permits to come our way? Do we use them as opportunities to draw nearer to Him, or just to get frustrated and angry?
Thirdly, we should notice that the woman is persistent in her request. The Greek form of the verb for “called out” is the one used for a repeated action. The woman kept calling out, again and again, in spite of Christ’s silence, or rather, because of it. The disciples tell Jesus to send her away; probably they just wanted Jesus to work a miracle and tell the woman to leave. But back then, just like today, Jesus doesn’t work miracles to get rid of people or to stop them from bothering Him (as if we could bother Him with our prayers). No, Jesus works miracles, even the small, everyday ones, to draw us closer to Himself, to show His love for us and to bring us nearer to Him. We can forget that everything that Christ does is for our good; no matter what it is, or how hard it is to accept, Christ loves us and wants the best for us.
This leads to the fourth detail: Jesus’ replies to the woman. At first glance, Jesus’ reply seems odd: He simply says nothing. This can often be our experience at prayer, when God doesn’t give an answer, at least not right away. Yet, God’s silence is never inactive or unloving. As Saint Teresa of Calcutta said, “We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.” Here, the woman’s faith grows in silence. We know this because, at first, she calls Jesus the “Son of David.” It’s a nice phrase, but a political title, a distant one. Later she will call Him “Lord,” with the full force that that title implies. We can ask ourselves, do we seek to grow in our relationship with Christ? Do we try to learn more about Him, to spend time with Him in prayer, to really get to know Him?
This leads us to our fifth point: how does the woman respond to this? The answer is: with humility. The disciples want her to go, and it seems that Christ won’t help either. But, rather than leave, as we might expect her to, she does the opposite: she draws near to Jesus and, as this translation has it, she “did Him homage.” The Greek word is much stronger: literally it means “to kiss the ground,” to prostrate oneself, to throw oneself at someone’s feet. I point this out because, if we really know the Gospels, we would know that at this point, the woman has already won Jesus’ heart. In the Gospels no one who threw themselves at Christ’s feet ever went away empty-handed. We can think of Jairus, the woman who anointed Christ’s feet, among many others. In what follows, then, Jesus is giving her the opportunity to make an even greater act of faith. Rather than simply show His power, He also shows His love and mercy, and His desire for her to grow in her love for Him. We are reminded of how we should approach God: do we “fall at His feet” for all of our needs, knowing that He can provide for us, and will do so, even if He seems to delay?
Even after this display of humility, Christ gives her an opportunity to grow even more in that virtue, and tells her: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Regarding the use of the term “dog,” there are two things to be noted. First, the term “dog” was a common, and rather strong, insult that the Jews commonly applied to the Gentiles. Dogs in that region and time were known to be quite foul, and thus the Jews thought of the Gentiles, since they were unclean and prone to idolatry. However, Jesus greatly softens it by using the diminutive form, kunarion, which really means puppies, or, more properly, little pet dogs, which better explains the exchange between Jesus and woman. It’s not right to give what is for the little children of Israel, namely, salvation, and give it to the little children of the dogs.
We see the woman’s humility grow even more as, in the original Greek, the woman gives an affirmative reply, saying, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the tables of their masters.” Saint John Chrysostom points out that Jesus calls the Jews children, but the woman goes even further, and calls them “masters.” He uses the word “dog” to describe her and her people, but she lowers herself even more, and applies to herself the action of a dog, sitting under the table. She becomes a child because she lowers herself. The degree to which we will be exalted is the degree to which we lower ourselves. As the story is told, once Saint Bernard (whose feast is today) was asked what the three most important virtues were, and he replies: “The first is humility, the second, humility, and the third, humility.” We can ask ourselves: how much do we practice this virtue? If Christ emphasized it so much with this woman, how much more do we need to be humble in our lives? Dear brothers and sisters, through the intercession of Mary, Model of Prayer and Model of Humility, let us ask for the grace to approach God with hearts confident in His love for us, knowing that, as His beloved children, He desires to provide for our needs and to bring us to heaven with Him for all eternity.
 Pope Benedict’s address to pupils, Sports Arena of St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, Friday, 17 September 2010.
 The Problem of Pain.