20th Sunday O T Year – A – 14
Is.56:1. 6-7, Rom.11:13-15.29-32, Matt.15: 21-28
There is an Aesop fable which tells the story of a rabbit and a hunting dog. One day when the dag was out hunting he flushed a rabbit from a thicket and gave chase. The frightened rabbit ran its little heart out and eventually escaped. As the dog headed home, it passed a farmer who taunted him with, “You are a fine hunter. Aren’t you ashamed to let a rabbit one-tenth of your size outrun you and get away?”
The dog answered, “Ah, but sir, I was only running for my supper, the rabbit was running for his life!” Yes, this rabbit was running faster than the fastest man in the world! In today’s gospel we hear a dialogue between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. This woman’s single-mindedness for her daughter’s healing is rewarded. This should remind us of the following words. “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight – it is the size of the fight in the dog.” Run for life you will win the race.
The woman in the story teaches us a few truths about our faith and prayer. The first thing she teaches us is persistence. Her persistence is recognized by Jesus. This is an important lesson when all of us struggle. Are we persistent? We get serious about losing weight, and then give up when it doesn’t come off fast enough. Our doctor recommends exercise, and we do so for a few days after visiting the doctor and then go back to life as usual.
Just as difficult is persistence in prayer, in good works, or with any spiritual discipline. The woman in the gospel reminds us that sometimes the sheer persistence can be the prayer, the good work and the spiritual discipline. This is a unique story. We cannot think of any other story where Jesus seems so harsh with someone seeking his help. It’s also the only one we can think of where someone got the better of Jesus in a debate.
The only part of the story that most of us remember is Jesus saying to her, “it is not right to take the food of the children (the Jews) and throw it to the dogs (meaning Gentiles).” Referring to someone as a dog in those days, as well as today, would be an insult. A dog would be an unclean animal for the Jews, just as Gentiles were considered unclean by the Jews.
The important thing that we need to notice here is that the woman didn’t turn and walk away in a huff. She was humble enough and clever enough and persistent enough to accept Jesus’ remark and turn it to her advantage in order to gain his help to heal her daughter. We also need to notice in the gospel today that the healing is not the primary focus of the story. It is the conversation between Jesus and the woman.
The Gospels describe only two miraculous healings Jesus performed for Gentiles: the healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman and the healing of the centurion’s servant (Mt. 8:5-10). The encounter with the Canaanite woman took place outside Jewish territory. These miracles were performed in Tyre and Sidon, two coastal cities, twenty-five and fifty miles north of Galilee in present-day Lebanon. The story of our miracle is told by Mark (7:24-30) as well as by Matthew (15:21-23). The miracles foreshadow the extension of the Gospel, the Good News, to the whole world.
By granting the persistent request of the pagan woman, Jesus demonstrates that his mission is to break down the barriers and to remove the walls of division and prejudice between the Jews and the Gentiles. God does not discriminate but welcomes all who believe in Him, who ask for His mercy and who try to do His will.
Jesus first ignores both the persistent cry of the woman and the impatience of his disciples to send the woman away. He then tries to awaken true faith in the heart of this woman by an indirect refusal, telling her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman is persistent in her request. She kneels before him and begs, “Lord, help me.” Now Jesus makes a seemingly harsh statement, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The term “dogs” was a derogatory Jewish word for the Gentiles. Dogs were regarded by the Jews as unclean, because they would eat anything given to them, including pork. The woman noticed, however, that Jesus had used the word kunariois–the word for household pets – rather than the ordinary Greek word for dogs – kuon. She also observed that Jesus had used the word for dogs in a joking way – a sort of test of the woman’s Faith.
So she immediately matched wits with Jesus. Her argument runs like this: Pets are not outsiders but insiders. They not only belong to the family, but are part of the family. While they do not have a seat at the table, they enjoy intimacy at the family’s feet. Hence the woman replied: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v.27), expressing her faith that Jesus could and would heal her daughter.
Jesus was completely won over by the depth of her Faith, her confidence and her wit and hence responded exuberantly, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
In that we find a lesson for ourselves. How many times have we prayed earnestly for something, something very dear to us, and God seems to have ignored us or rebuffed us. We turn on our heels and walk away, angry, promising we will quit praying or going to church or thinking God just doesn’t care about me.
The second thing we can learn from this woman is the need for a clear focus. The civil rights movement calls it: “keep your eyes on the prize.” When Jesus spoke to her in language that demeaned her people, she did not lose her cool but kept her eyes on the goal of her mission, which is to show that even non-Jews are entitled to God’s blessings in Christ.
The third thing we learn from this woman is courage. Being a foreigner and as a woman, it took phenomenal courage on her part to decide to approach the all-Jewish and all-male company of Jesus and his disciples. She was out there for a “one-woman demonstration” giving us a message not to be afraid to challenge prejudice and falsity even in religious high places.
Although the essential parts of prayer are adoration and thanksgiving, the prayer of petition plays a big part in most people’s daily life. We cannot provide, by our unaided selves, for our spiritual and temporal needs. Christ himself has told us to ask him for these needs: “Ask and you shall receive.”
Asking with fervor and perseverance proves that we have the “great faith” we need to receive all that Christ wants to grant us in response to our requests. We must realize and remember that we do not always get exactly what we ask for, but rather what God knows we need, what He wants for us and what is really best for us. What we need most are the peace and security that come from being in harmony with God’s will for us.
Let us always try to pray the prayer that the woman prayed, “Lord, help me”. Amen.