The Gospel account (Matthew 15: 21-28) for this 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time contains one of the most memorable and at the same time quite disturbing verbal duels recorded in the four Gospels… and one of the most important. We need to draw some golden nuggets out of this significant passage.
First of all, it is important to note that Jesus is speaking here to a woman, something rabbis in those days did not do in public. Not only that, but she was a foreigner, a Canaanite woman from what we now call Lebanon. The Jews and their neighbors did not get along well with each other at all, and the same is true even today.
Like the Magi, those wise men from the East that we find at Christ’s birth, this non-Jew presents herself to Jesus and addresses Him as “Son of David” as she begs His help for her daughter who is possessed by some mysterious inner demonic force. The title “Son of David” was revered by the Jews as the title of their expected Messiah. The fact that this Canaanite woman uses it is quite significant.
In this account there are three movements.
The first involves the Canaanite woman’s journey of faith. Leaving her own religion behind she turns to a Jewish rabbi, Jesus, and places her faith in Him. She looks to Him for a miraculous cure for her daughter. There is nothing that makes a woman’s audacity more pronounced than concern for her child’s health and safety.
For her trouble, she received silence from Jesus. She was rebuffed, humiliated, and given a cold shoulder from Him. Never was it known, before or since, that Jesus would rebuff a plea for His compassionate help. Furthermore, Jesus’ disciples, annoyed by the fact that she was bothering Him with her loud crying, seek to get rid of her. They want Jesus to send her away. So Jesus says to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” another rebuff.
Then comes the second movement. The woman presses in on Jesus, and falling on her knees in front of Him she cries out, “Lord, help me.” She is blocking Him and thereby saying: “You’re not going to get rid of me!”
For her second effort Jesus tells her, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” How utterly humiliating that was. In effect He was calling her a dog! Her humility was turned into what appeared to be a terrible humiliation. People in the Middle East are very sensitive about such things, something that we are very aware of in our dealings with them in our time. But this woman didn’t give up.
Then comes the final movement. In abject humility with her face in the dirt, stripped of her dignity, having abandoned her own religious background, she has nothing left, not even her pride. “Please, Lord,” she softly insists, “even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” The hidden implication is that she is making herself a part of His household, one of the children of God, His Father. Was not Christ’s mission for all people, not just the Israelites?
Additionally, the Canaanite woman was saying is that she doesn’t deserve anything. “But,” she asks, “how about giving me scraps that accidentally fall from your abundance?” With that, the heart of Jesus is vanquished. The scene would be repeated later on at the end of His life. His own humiliation and abandonment would, connected as it was with the Last Supper, play out in a way strikingly similar to this account. Like the woman here, He wouldn’t give up.
The key that unlocks the mystery contained in this verbal duel is to recognize that Jesus saw in this Canaanite woman a reality that she didn’t even see herself. He saw in her a faith that could withstand any assault; a love that was divine; a hope that could not be shaken. He tested her mettle and she found something within herself that she didn’t know even existed. Joined into the humiliation that Christ would later suffer, she transcended ordinary humanity and came into a level of life and love that was God’s. Her three-step journey in faith mirrored Christ’s.
The critical point of it all is that Jesus sees the same thing in you and in me. For He has an unrealized dream about who you really are and what you’re really made of. In Christ’s life, passion, and death we find the stuff of our real humanity, particularly so when we share in His suffering, passion, and death.
Had Jesus granted her request right away, this woman would never have ascended to the heights of glory that she did. We must see that in the divine scheme of things, the more we lose the more we win. The more we give away, the more we gain. The more we go down, the higher we ascend. In that, we pass from what is human into what is divine.
It’s the path of Jesus.
Should Jesus grant our prayer requests right away, we would never ascend to the heights of glory that are hidden within your destiny and mine. That is why, when in the Garden of Gethsemani Jesus prayed that His Father rescue Him; His Father did not. The answer to Jesus’ prayer was not rescue — it was resurrection. We should expect that our prayers will be answered in the same way.
St. Paul presents this journey in three parts in his Letter to the Philippians. In Chapter two we find that threefold movement in Christ’s own life when Paul writes:
His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. But God raised him on high and gave him a name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
THE FIRST MOVEMENT is His abandonment of His proper place, His native place at the right hand of His Father in heaven. He moves from His Father’s side into a place of alienation and separation, into total immersion with us where we are at, more importantly into who we are.
THE SECOND MOVEMENT is downward into our sinful humanity… and not only that but to a level below that which we are usually willing to accept. He is spit upon, humiliated, and stripped naked of all His dignity. His face is rubbed in the dirt, as was the Canaanite woman’s face.
THE THIRD MOVEMENT is upward. He rises from the dead into a new Spirit-filled, resurrected life, and then ascends into glory back to His Father’s side. Victorious over all that is demonic within our humanity, He heals far more than the Canaanite woman’s daughter – He gives His healing power to all of us His Mystical Body, the Church.
In the divine scheme of things, the more we lose the more we win. The more we give, the more we receive. The more we go down, the higher we ascend. Ask anyone who has ever successfully completed a recovery program, they will tell you that you find power over whatever demons beset you when you surrender to your Higher Power.
God came among us with healing power and He is looking for our faith. The Canaanite woman came to God in faith and in search of healing and found it. Your task and mine as well is to live a life-story just like hers.
Can you? Can I? Yes, we can, because Jesus lived it first and then gave us the power and the capacity to live lives like that. The question is not: Can we? The real question is: Will we? Will we find what God sees in us?
REVEREND CHARLES IRVIN, or “Father Charlie,” as he is known, was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on January 6, 1933. He was raised and educated there, graduating from the University of Michigan’s Law School. After a brief career as an attorney he entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1967. Shortly thereafter he began an eleven-year ministry at St. Mary’s Student Chapel in Ann Arbor. A rich variety of ministries followed including appointments to many advisory positions in the Church and three other pastorates. In the early 1970s he began writing columns for several Catholic newspapers in Michigan. In 1999 he was appointed founding editor of Faith magazine, published by the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan. Today, the magazine serves seven dioceses.