TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2020)
Readings:Isaiah 56:1, 6-7Psalms 67:2-3, 5-6, 8Romans 11:13-15, 29-32Matthew 15:21-28
In today’s gospel reading Matthew is willing to share with us just how deeply prejudice and bias affects the world in which we live. Indeed, so insidiously deep can the roots of prejudice be, that we even see Jesus affected by the prejudices of His day in His exchange with the Canaanite woman. The Canaanite woman has two strikes against her in the culture of Jesus’ day: she is a woman, and she is a pagan, someone who worships gods other than the God of Israel. The ethos of the time is clearly evident in the reaction of the disciples: “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” Jesus appears to condone their sense of being bothered, by telling them that He “was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and, in a rather troubling way, Jesus will refer to the Canaanite woman as a “dog,” a rather demeaning word for non-Jews.
From the start, the Canaanite woman is not asking something for herself. No, it is because her “daughter is tormented by a demon” that she decides to bother the “preacher” and His disciples. Whatever the daughter’s psychological problem was (autism, schizophrenia, some psychological disorder), it was serious enough for the woman to disregard the etiquette of the day and approach a man, among a group of protective men. Like so many illnesses of the day, the daughter’s condition no doubt isolated her from people, for people fear what they do not understand. She was no doubt at wits end, but she was determined, and something inside her told her that this “Son of David” could do something to help.
When Jesus finally decides to answer the woman’s pleadings directly, He responds with the prejudice typical of His age, and says “it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” That insult from Jesus grates on our perception of the divine, but Jesus is fully divine and fully human, and clearly when it comes to His approach to this Canaanite woman, the human has taken over.
If the story continued with the woman giving Jesus an impolite gesture and walking away in a huff, we would not have been surprised. Instead, the Canaanite woman musters all her strength and cleverness, and states “Please, Lord (a faith-filled title), for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” She is desperate, and even a scrap will be enough. Jesus, on His part, appears to have done an about-face, for the woman He would have preferred not to talk to, and who He compares to a dog, now becomes a woman of “great faith:” “let it be done for you as you wish,” and her daughter is healed. The Canaanite woman joins Mary as one who appears to get Jesus to change His mind (N.B., the wedding feast at Cana).
That our troubling gospel story was thought to be so important by Matthew that it is included in his divinely inspired book, should cause us to reflect even more ardently about what it is trying to say to us. Perhaps it wasn’t just the woman who changed Jesus’ mind, for His recollection of all that the Scriptures taught declares in so many places what our first reading declares: “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” “All the nations” as the psalmist says, shall know God’s salvation. God’s face shines even on the “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord” (Isaiah 56:6), and Jesus would make it clear what Paul saw so clearly, that “God’s mercy” is shown to the Gentiles (Romans).
Jesus’ action in today’s gospel also demonstrates the need to overcome the prejudices and bias that cause us to look on those who are different from us as “dogs.” At a time when racial discrimination is at the center of our evening news, it might be a good time to examine the prejudices and biases that might cause us to react as Jesus first reacted to the Canaanite woman, for His first reaction is not to be emulated, no matter how understandable it was given the ethos of His time. It is worth taking some comfort that the human side of Jesus caused Him to react in a less than admirable way, but it is important that we challenge ourselves to abandon the prejudices that afflicted Jesus and His disciples, and that might cause us to be insensitive to the needs of others who might be very different than us. Prejudice is capable of imperceptibly creeping into the ordinary decisions we make in life, and without the kind of check that was made by Jesus, can cause us to be unfair or unjust toward others. It might take a great deal of effort to overcome the prejudices we have lived with all our lives, but it is an effort worth making, for it is an effort, like in today’s gospel, that can end up being life giving.