Great Gifts Gained

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus withdraws to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Sidon and Tyre were two pagan cities on the Mediterranean seacoast. Both cities still exist today, about twenty-five and fifty miles south of Beirut, in Lebanon. In today’s gospel, a local, non-Jewish, Canaanite woman, a gentile, finds Jesus and wins a grace from him.

This gospel story from Matthew is also told in Mark. Combining these two accounts, we learn that Jesus was staying in a house there and wanted nobody to know about it, yet he could not escape notice. This woman heard about Jesus, and came to him pleading. She cries out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But surprisingly, Jesus does not say a word in answer to her. His disciples even complain to Jesus: “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” Jesus replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (That is, the Jews.) The woman comes, kneeling at his feet, and says, “Lord, help me.” He tells her: “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the little dogs.” What’s going on with this unexpected reaction from Jesus?

Previously in Matthew’s Gospel, another gentile, a Roman centurion, a commander of soldiers, asked Jesus to heal his servant who was lying at home paralyzed and suffering dreadfully. Luke records that at the time some Jewish elders were urging Jesus to save the man’s dying servant, saying, “He deserves to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation and he built the synagogue for us.” Jesus said, “I will come and cure him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him and, turning, said to the crowd following him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” From this we can gather that the centurion was more than just an unbelieving pagan, but a God-fearer; that is to say, he was a gentile who believed in and worshiped the God of Israel yet had not gone all the way over to becoming a Jew himself, enduring circumcision and keeping all the rules of the Law of Moses. The centurion showed great faith in both Yahweh and Jesus as the Christ. Perhaps Jesus’ challenging reply to the pagan woman was to elicit from her a greater display of faith in both God and Jesus as well.

In Matthew, a couple of chapters after healing the centurion’s servant, Jesus sends out the twelve apostles on mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God, having first instructed them: “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That’s just like he tells the woman, a few chapters later, in our gospel. Maybe Jesus is trying to keep a low profile during his stay near Tyre and Sidon and reluctant to work any miracles there because the time is not yet ripe for the pagans to be evangelized. “Let the children be fed first,” he tells the woman, signaling that her people will be fed later. This is the mission to the gentiles St. Paul speaks of in today’s second reading. Yet the woman wins Jesus over and he grants the miracle she seeks.

How does she do it? Through her faith, hope, and love, her asking and persistence, and her great humility. She has faith, calling him “Son of David,” a title for the Messiah. She hopes that he can heal and free her beloved daughter, the love for whom has led her to this encounter. She asks and keeps asking, until her humility wins the day. When Jesus tells her, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the little dogs,” she doesn’t hurl an insult at him, or storm off enraged. She replies, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” The eternal, divine, Son of God, who so had incredibly humbled himself by becoming human as an obedient suffering servant, admires this reply. She wins the dialogue by humbly speaking the truth. As a result of her faith, hope, and love, persistent asking, and humility, Jesus says to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour. Upon her return home she finds her daughter well, lying in bed, and the demon gone.

This Canaanite’s story provides a lesson for us in our life of prayer. When you wish to approach Jesus to ask for some grace imitate the virtues we see in her. Perhaps there is also a lesson in her example for how we dialogue with others, especially about contentious topics; at home in daily life, or in society during this election year. And here is a final reflection for our benefit. Imagine how joyful and grateful the woman must have been when she came home and found her daughter cured. She knew this was because of Jesus. It was a foretaste of the gifts and graces which were to come to the gentile nations. And the Church of Christ has since spanned across the world to us here and now, few of whom have much biological connection to the Jews. Most of us here have been Catholic for as long as we can remember. It’s been a given for us. But here’s a question for a car ride discussion or to bring to your prayer: If you couldn’t be Catholic anymore, and further, if you couldn’t be a Christian anymore, what things would you miss the most?

The gifts of Jesus which come to my mind are having a life with meaning, purpose, and hope. I’m not seeking to hasten my death, but I do not regard dying with horror. I posses a Sacred Tradition of moral truths which is not merely my opinion or the changing opinion of culture, but God’s teachings for how to live. And I have, in this era without heroes, a Communion of Saints on earth and in Heaven, to inspire and support me. Consider, discuss, and pray about this question yourself. Give thanks and rejoice that these great gifts are now yours through Jesus Christ and his Church.

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