Long before I began to study Scripture in the seminary, I wondered and often questioned, upon hearing the gospel passage of today, about Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman. Anyone not knowing how this encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite was going to end, would surely feel perplexed (maybe troubled?) at Jesus’ response. Here comes a Canaanite woman, who probably had already heard of Jesus’ reputation of healing many people, and she approaches him. Even though she knew that she was not part of the Jewish community, she takes the initiative and courage to approach Jesus. She was calling out to Jesus and he doesn’t even seem to hear her. Surely one cannot say that Jesus genuinely did not hear her in the crowd when on another occasion, he knew immediately that someone had touched His cloak and that was also in a crowd. There is something different in the way Jesus acted in today’s Gospel… and it is perhaps the only time recorded in the Gospel where He seemed like He was going to deny someone their fervent request.
Still, the woman doesn’t give up… she was determined to overcome every difficulty and resistance, and kneels at Jesus’ feet and pleads her cause, “Lord, help me”. Though Jesus already knew how this encounter was going to end, he was going to make this a learning experience for his disciples. In the cultural world of Jesus, the Jews sometimes called the pagans “dogs” and therefore one can try to understand what Jesus was saying when he says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to house dogs”. However, the quick-witted woman dares to “correct him” from her point of view: “Lord; but even house dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table”. What a great answer!
This encounter today is quite the opposite of what we heard last week in our Gospel when Simon Peter cried out “Lord, save me” (help me) when he became aware of the strong wind and then started sinking into the lake. Jesus then goes on to ask him by asking “Why did you doubt?” The response of the Canaanite woman truly demonstrates her great faith… unlike Simon Peter, there wasn’t an ounce of doubt in her. Though the Jews considered her to be a pagan, Jesus now recognizes the woman as a believer and finds in her a “great faith”, not the small and doubting faith of his disciples… “you men of little faith”.
All three reading this Sunday point to faith as a gracious gift of God. The gift of faith solely belongs to God and He is free to choose to whom He wants to give it to. The Israelites at the time of Jesus were driven by the thought that by virtue of their election in the Old Testament, they were chosen and saved. Yet, on many occasions, Jesus broke away from that thought when He opened the gift of God (faith) to all who sought Him out… whether it was the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel or the Samaritan woman at the well and even to the tax collector who was despised by many – Jesus offered them the gift of God.
In today’s world, for many people, faith is to believe in what one can see, make sense of it and sometimes to be able to feel (touch) it, a little like Thomas, the doubting apostle… seeing is believing. However, St Augustine tells us: “Faith is to believe what you do not see; [and] the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” The Canaanite woman came not knowing whether her daughter would be healed but she had faith and that presumably became the turning point in her. The reward of her faith was to see her daughter healed.
All of us have been given the gift of faith and that will never be taken away from us. St Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans (our second reading today), that “God never takes back his gifts or revokes His choice”. God had chosen us and given us the gift of faith and it is up to us what we do with this “gift”. Many people lose faith because they seem to think that faith and reason don’t go hand in hand and therefore often choose reason over faith. Faith is a leap in the dark – you do not know where you are going to land but you have the hope and certainty that you will not get hurt. There are things about God and faith that do not make sense at times, but the faith of the Canaanite woman should at least remind us that God does not abandon His people, especially in times of need. He may not do the thing we want Him to do but never fails to be by our side. Let us today renew that commitment to Him, since we have been gifted and chosen, that no matter what, we will always not lose hope in Him – our Way, our Truth, and our Life.
– 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)