If I am ever asked to compile a list of passages in the Gospel that are difficult to understand to the ordinary reader, the passage we have today (Matt 15:21-28) would certainly make that list. A cursory reading of this passage would certainly raise more questions than answers. The first thing that would catch the attention of the reader is the insensitivity of Jesus towards the Canaanite woman; especially after how Jesus had responded in the preceding verses where Jesus showed great compassion towards the people who had no food by multiplying the bread and fish and also how He consoled His apostles when they were on the boat and fighting for their lives. How could Jesus’ initial response be so insensitive and refuse her request of healing for her daughter?

To understand this passage well, one needs to know its context and the intention of the author for choosing to include this encounter. The intended audience of Matthew’s gospel was the Jewish community (that is probably the reason why Matthew makes frequent references to the Old Testament). The Jewish mind-set was that they were the “chosen race” and therefore they were saved and no one else.

The woman that comes to Jesus is a Canaanite. Historically there is this animosity between the Jews and Canaanites. In fact in the Old Testament, Joshua leads his people to conquer the land of Canaan and this angered the Canaanites. On the other hand, Canaanites were not monotheistic – they had gods. The Jews could not accept this especially when they would inter marry.

Jesus’ encounter is with a Canaanite woman who probably believed in many gods (though there is no mention of this in the passage). Through the encounter Jesus wanted to draw her into a deeper faith and acknowledge Him to be the Lord of all. Not only was Jesus able to draw faith from her, even the disciples now recognise that anyone who believes and puts faith in Jesus is a disciple – breaking the age old tradition that only those from the chosen race could be a disciple)

So the conversation has to be understood in its historical setting to capture fully what Jesus is doing here. He is not playing games with the woman – He did not go all the way to her region to avoid her! Jesus is making it clear that the grace of God will be given to all who believe, even though His mission called for Him to present Himself to Israel as the Son of David.

The liturgy of the word this Sunday points strongly towards the mercy of God. No one has exclusive property of God’s mercy. In fact it is God who chooses us to be the recipients of His mercy – something that we should all be grateful for. And why has God chosen us to be the recipients of His mercy? It is simply because He wants us to share it with others. In Matthew 9: 13, Jesus says: “it is mercy that I want and not sacrifice”. Just as the mercy of God is unconditional towards us who fail over and over, we too are called to share and show this mercy of God. We live in a society that is highly critical of one another. We are intolerant, impatient, unforgiving, and form judgments of one another. This causes friction within the family, community, nation and the Church too.

The gospel today reminds us that mercy (compassion), kindness, love, and forgiveness, are the marks of a true disciple of Jesus. May we be true disciples of Jesus.

“The just is close to the people’s heart,
but the merciful is close to the heart of God.” (Kahlil Gibran)

– 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)