Jean Colombe, "Miracle of the Canannite Woman", Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1485)
Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A):
At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.
- Mt 15:21-28
It’s safe to say that probably none of us would choose today’s story of Jesus as one of our favorites. This story seems strange to us, even disturbing, because we see it in a Jesus whom we don’t recognize. We struggle to understand and explain why Jesus acts the way he does. The Canaanite woman comes to him with a very real need – her daughter is in distress – and yet what does Jesus do? First, it says that he is silent – “he did not say a word in answer to her,” the Gospel says. When the disciples want to send her away – perhaps annoyed by her or disturbed that Jesus would not answer – he gives a dismissive response about this Gentile woman. Finally, when she addresses him again, he seems to outright insult her, implying that she and her people are “dogs”.
So what’s going on here? Was Jesus having a bad day? Was he just being a jerk? Well, no – Jesus is trying to teach us something very important. Let’s take a step back from the story for a moment and consider if there’s something in it that resonates in our own lives. We have things in our lives that concern us, real problems and challenges that worry us. Often these are things that are outside of our control – maybe a friend is suffering from a terrible illness, or someone we love is blind to the poor choices they are making or about to make. Maybe we have a troubling situation at work with a coworker, or maybe we’re having trouble finding adequate work. There are countless situations in our lives where we feel helpless.
What do we do? Like the Canaanite woman, we turn to the Lord. We go to God and ask him to help, to give what we or someone else need. And then what happens? Often … nothing. Nothing changes. God seems to be silent – it seems as if our prayers have gone unheard. Or maybe, things get even worse – the situation goes from bad to worse or some new crisis or difficulty arises, and we think “What is going on? What did I do wrong? Why is God punishing me?”
And here is the real danger, because if we feel as if our faith is not helping us, if we feel as if God is not listening to us, then we risk becoming bitter or cynical or unbelieving. We probably all know someone who has struggled in this way – who had some terrible situation and God seemed silent or absent or uncaring – and so what happened? They left the Church, they lost their faith, they stopped believing.
Notice though, how the woman from Canaan reacts in completely the opposite way. She is not discouraged but rather asks all the more insistently – “Lord, help me,” she says. She refuses to give up. She refuses to let her faith be diminished by the seeming lack of a response. From all external factors, it would seem as if she has nothing going for her – she was a foreigner, a non-Jew, and Jesus does not seem inclined to help her. And yet what she does have and what she refuses to give up is the persistence of her faith.
So, why does Jesus act as he does? To test her – not to toy with her, not to be mean to her – but to help her to move from merely asking for something to understanding in a deeper way her own very great faith. He wants to give her the gift of a deeper awareness of what is already present in her. The tests that God gives to us always have a specific purpose, a reason – a good reason. Maybe because we have asked for the wrong thing, or in the wrong way. Maybe because God wants us to realize better how completely we depend on him. Maybe because he is helping us to grow so that we can receive an even greater gift than what we asked for.
My friends, Jesus loved the Canaanite woman just as God loves each of us. And yet, at times our faith will be tested. When it is, we must not give in to doubt or discouragement – we must not give in to the easy way of thinking that God isn’t listening or is punishing us or doesn’t care. At times, we are asked to wait – to make our hearts grow, to make our souls expand – to receive not merely what we’ve asked for but the gifts that God really wishes to give to us – a deeper faith, a stronger hope, a greater love. They may not be exactly what we ask for, but God knows that those are the gifts that will really help us and sustain us and form us into the people that he calls us to be.