20th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A)
Sunday 20 August 2023
“He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me’. He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’. She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’. Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish’. And her daughter was healed instantly”.
While passing through the region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus encounters a ‘Canaanite’ woman. That adjective, at that time, referred more precisely to Phoenicia (modern day Lebanon), rather than the Promised Land. Driven by the pain of her daughter (who was being tormented by a demon), on encountering Jesus, the woman asks Him to intervene with healing and freedom. She cries out to Him using the title “Son of David”, meaning that she recognises that He is the Messiah. Jesus’ reaction is surprising: He doesn’t say one word to her! Hearing the woman cry out, the disciples ask the Master to listen so she would stop. In a certain way, Jesus breaks the silence by suggesting what motivated His approach to her: His mission is oriented to the House of Israel.
However, the woman insists and, prostrating herself, she asks for His help. At this point, Jesus addresses her in language that is difficult for us to interpret or understand. But it would have been clear to the Canaanite woman. Who are the “children” and who are the “dogs”? Well, the “dogs” are the pagans, or non-Jews. The Canaanite woman knows she is considered as this. She knows she isn’t a member of the children of Israel, the only ones invited to take part in the banquet.
This remarkable encounter gives us some food for reflection. The Gospel of Matthew highlights that the mission of Jesus is to the House of Israel. The apostles (the first Christians) were all Jews. Elsewhere, Jesus Himself explicitly tells the Samaritan woman, “salvation is from the Jews!” (Jn 4:22).
It wasn’t yet time for the Gospel to be applied universally, but this encounter with the Canaanite woman ‘prophetically’ anticipates what will come about for all pagans. The attitude of the woman is exemplary. She doesn’t give up. In fact, she accepts her ‘excluded’ condition without jealousy or judgement, and like one would see from a young dog, she is willing to gather the crumbs, the scraps, from the table. In other words, she is willing to gratefully receive the gift that falls from on high – a gift that is free and unmerited – demonstrating such full trust in the abundance of bread at the banquet.
The Canaanite woman teaches us today that salvation is a gift that we don’t deserve and we cannot buy. We can only accept and receive it with thanksgiving!