Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
Every mother wants what is best for their children, and the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel from Matthew is no exception. Her daughter is “tormented by a demon,” perhaps plagued by some mental illness, and the mother appears to be worn out and desperate.
There is an especially strict code of behavior for women in the Middle East, and it doesn’t include making a nuisance of yourself and calling out numerous times to a Jewish itinerant preacher. Yet that is exactly what she does. Jews and Canaanites would never even have a reason to connect, so much did they despise one another. But the Canaanite woman had to follow her instincts. She believed strongly that there just might be a chance that what people were saying about this Jesus from Nazareth might be true. Perhaps Jesus could truly help, and she wasn’t going to miss that opportunity.
At first, Jesus did not seem to be inclined to be bothered by her pleas, for He offered no reply. In this most Jewish of gospels we hear Jesus give as a reason for his silence that “he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” something his listeners would be pleased to hear. Even when the woman chose to grovel and do him “homage,” Jesus could only respond with words that sound rather insulting, comparing the woman and her kind to dogs. But the Canaanite woman was on a mission, and she would not be derailed even by Jesus’ strong language. She acknowledges his comparison, and begs him for at least a “scrap” from the table. She had no intention leaving this sacred encounter without something for her daughter, and Jesus recognized her “great faith,” and her “daughter was healed from that hour.”
This story of the Canaanite woman only appears in the gospel of Mark and Matthew. Why would Matthew want to include this story from Mark which presents Jesus in such a curious light? In a more positive way, Matthew presents this healing story as a story of “great faith,” but it is still difficult to look kindly on Jesus behavior. But those who were hearing the story would not get lost in the very human details of Jesus’ personality, for the bigger story for Matthew, and for us on this Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, is the proclamation of the gospel that has no limits to whom it is preached. The readings for the day do more than hint that what is most important is that “all the nations” are meant to praise God. Even the “foreigners,” the Gentiles, “who join themselves to the Lord” will be blessed, for as Isaiah in the first reading proclaims “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” The redemption that Jesus brings to our world is offered to all peoples, and because the Canaanite woman cooperated with God’s plan for her, in spite of the odds, she is recognized for her great faith and given the gift of healing for her daughter.
Just as the Jews of Jesus’ day were surprised by the Lord’s embrace of those who were different, who were undeserving, who stood on the fringes of society, who were unclean, who were tax collectors and sinners, so we need to allow ourselves to be surprised at the magnanimity of God’s love. Many are still tempted to put boundaries or limits on that love, but what Jesus did in his earthly ministry, what Jesus did for the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel, clearly shows that God’s love has no limits, and it is freely bestowed on all people who open their hearts to receive that love.
Further, we are meant to imitate the Canaanite woman’s perseverance in prayer. When God might appear to be silent and uncaring; when God seems distant and unwilling to answer our prayers, it is then that we cry out and stand fast, allowing God to see our great faith.