“Jesus and Canaanite woman” – Reflection and Lectio Divina

Reflection for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time entitled: “Jesus and Canaanite woman” by Fr Michael Casey, Provincial of the Salesians – Irish Province.

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A – Lectio divina on Mt 15,21-28

During his public ministry Jesus rarely ventured outside the borders of Israel. This gospel passage recalls one of those rare occasions and it gives the reason for it: he spent some time among the pagans because he wanted anonymity and solitude. He wanted to get away from the crowd that was following him, and to rest from the hard work of preaching. This unaccustomed reaction of Jesus may seem reasonable and very understandable to us. When we see his need for rest it makes him more human, more like us. For this very reason then, we are all the more surprised at his negative response to the request of a mother in desperate need. We are bound to be surprised at Jesus’ refusing to help a woman in need. True, the woman who sought his assistance was not Jewish. The excuse that he was sent only to the children of Israel, hardly seems a good reason for Jesus to remain unmoved by the sorrow of a mother. However, his response was not intended as an excuse, but as a way of calling her to faith. In order to heal, Jesus needs to be believed. And to be believed, he imposes hard demands. The Canaanite woman “obtained” her healing because she submitted to the demanding pedagogy of Jesus.

At that time: 21 Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

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I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.

Jesus rarely went beyond the confines of Israel, because he felt that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel (Mt 10,6).  Later, the memory of this miracle would help the community for which Matthew was writing to be more open to the gentiles, because of the way Jesus had acted. When the Christian community became universal, through the success of the mission among the gentiles, they drew support from a few episodes (of which this is one) in which Jesus dealt with pagans and healed them (cf. Mt 8,5-13).  If salvation depends on faith, being seriously ill is not an obstacle, and neither is it an obstacle if one does not belong to the people of God.

The episode reminds us of the power of faith, even the faith of a pagan! It is not by chance that the story begins with a conversation that reveals the need of a mother who is desperate, and concludes by confirming that the desired cure has taken place. Through the conversation the woman “journeys” from her initial helplessness to complete trust, after putting up with a humiliating rebuff. Her faith is born, not only because she is unable to secure her daughter’s life – she must also accept that she is not worthy of the gift she is asking for. The pagan woman became a believer because she accepted the refusal of Jesus, and acknowledged that he was right.

The mother’s trust in Jesus arose from her need and her suffering. The disciples who think they are more intelligent want to get rid of the woman and proceed peacefully on their journey. Jesus did not think of helping her, because he knew that she did not belong to him. Her request would have been of no avail, had she not continued believing in him. She accepts that she does not deserve a place among the children, but refuses to believe that she does not deserve some help. She understands the reluctance of Jesus but does not let it stop her believing in him. Rather, it serves to renew and reinforce her faith, and for this reason, she will receive the children’s food and her daughter will be healed.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

By departing from his mission and granting a foreigner the gift that was intended for the children, Jesus distances himself from the people to whom he was sent. The faith of this foreign woman made an impression on him. Like Jesus on that occasion, God continues to feel challenged by those who, driven by necessity, dare to ask for what they know well they do not deserve. Do we think we deserve the things we ask God for with such insistence? Will God find as much faith among his own people as he sometimes finds among strangers?

Only if we understand the strange behaviour of Jesus can we appreciate the action of the woman who, by her insistence, overcame his reluctance. Her stubborn trust was stronger than Jesus’ reluctance to help her. Her repeated request overcame Jesus’ repeated opposition. Unfortunately, we sometimes nowadays have the situation, as in the days of Jesus, that we do not see as much faith among believers as we find among pagans. People who are far away from Jesus often come to him with a greater sense of need and greater trust than those who are close to him. People who do not know him sometimes have greater faith than those who have known him all their lives.

It was quite reasonable that Jesus did not think of working miracles in pagan territory. He had gone there to get a break from people who were continually seeking his help. He was seeking privacy and rest, and it did not suit him to work miracles. Moreover, he did not expect to be recognised in a pagan land nor did he expect a pagan to come to him for help.  But this mother plucked up courage, because of her daughter’s incurable illness. If she had not been in need of a miracle, the woman would not have come to Jesus, and she would not have upset the disciples with her shouting. But who could criticize a woman for forgetting her good manners, when her daughter’s life was at risk?

Perhaps this is the first lesson we can learn from the faith of the pagan woman. She went to Jesus because she could not bear to see her daughter suffering. She was not put off by the first ‘no’ from Jesus, because she needed him. She did not allow herself to be humiliated by his disparaging words but, because she needed him, she trusted all the more and persevered in her request. She had no one else to turn to. It did not matter to her that Jesus answered her request with silence. She kept on begging, louder than before, to the point where she upset the people who were with Jesus. The disciples were unmoved by the suffering of the woman, and very sure of themselves because they were followers of Jesus. They asked Jesus to do something for her, not out of compassion but because she was disturbing them. The second response of Jesus was even harsher than his silence. In spite of her shouting he does not intend to do anything for her, because she is not a daughter of Israel, the people to whom he was sent.

The mother is not convinced that this is a good enough reason and continues to appeal to the sentiments of Jesus. She agrees that the house-dogs do not eat from the master’s table, but she is daring enough to point out to Jesus that the dogs are normally fed from the master’s leftovers. In saying this she accepts the position – not a very honourable one – that Jesus has given her. But she refuses to accept that she deserves nothing in the house of God. She may not be worthy of the attention that Jesus gives to those who are his own, but her suffering makes her deserving of his compassion. She does not give up in the face of Jesus’ refusal. The reluctance of Jesus has the effect of increasing her boldness. Instead of losing patience, she has sufficient confidence to repeat her request.

Faced with that kind of faith and insistence, Jesus cannot but respond, even though it is the faith of a pagan woman. When he finds great faith and trust, God always responds, as Jesus did that day. He hears the prayers of those who ask again for what they have been refused, even if they know they have no right to ask for it. If we persist with God when he  denies our petition, and persevere even when God refuses the favours we request, and are not content with God’s silence or delay in responding, we will one day receive what we want, as the pagan woman did. God does not refuse people who put their trust in him. He hears the prayer of those who react to his “indifference” with a renewed request. God does not remain deaf to the cry of people who are not discouraged by his silence.

We who believe in Jesus should ask ourselves why do we obtain so little from our life of faith.  Could it be that the same thing is happening to us as happened to the Jews in the time of Jesus? He came for them, but when he hid from them for a moment, only a pagan woman came in search of him. She knew she could not expect him to come to look for her but she sought him nonetheless. Maybe because we know that he came into the world for us, we feel less obliged to search for him and pray to him. We know he wants to save us and so we do not feel the need to ask. We think we have a right to his help, and we do not make an effort to ask for favours. There are people who believe less than we do, and yet receive more from God. People who come to him for the first time often have more faith than we do, and yet we consider ourselves believers. This is sad, and it is something we should be ashamed of.

To believe as the pagan woman did, we must learn to overcome the apparent silence with which God responds to our desires, and persist in our prayer no matter how negative his response may be.  When our need for God is greater than his apparent indifference, then and only then will we succeed in reaching a level of faith that merits praise from Jesus. It is probably because he wants us to be better believers that God is using the same pedagogy with us that Jesus used with the pagan woman. He refuses to act immediately to make us persevere in our petition. He shows no interest so that we will maintain interest in him. He responds to our cry in silence so that we will not end the conversation too quickly. By his silence he seeks to awaken in us an awareness of the evils that afflict us and of our need for him. He wants to transform us into better believers, capable of more persistent prayer, people who are not afraid of ridicule as we continue to proclaim, loudly if necessary, the evils we endure and the trust we have in God.

Why do we, who think we have strong faith, not succeed in praying better? If God does not answer our prayer, is it because we do not persevere enough? If it seems that he hides from us or does not respond, if he does not pay us the same level of attention he once did, is this not a good time for us to go in search of him, and cry out our needs to him until he answers? The pagan woman succeeded – why should we believe less than she did?