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Faith in Foreign Lands: Reflection on the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Gibraltar Catholic Youth.

Millennia ago, God chose Abraham to be the “Father of many nations” (this is what Ab-ra-ham means in Hebrew). But, God was going to bring salvation through Abraham’s first born nation, Israel.

In our First Reading this Sunday, from the prophet Isaiah, the Lord tells us clearly what kind of people will ultimately form part of His covenant. Yes, it’s true, at that time only the Israelites were in covenant relationship with Him, but there would come a time, said the Lord, that

Foreigners who have attached themselves to the Lord to serve him and to love his name and be his servants – all who observe the sabbath, not profaning it, and cling to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain. I will make them joyful in my house of prayer. Their holocausts and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.

It’s no coincidence that the Gospel this Sunday tells us of a Canaanite woman (a foreigner) who begs Jesus for mercy.

When Israel left Egypt under Moses and entered the Promised Land (Canaan) under Joshua, it was the Canaanites who were their enemy, among others. In our Gospel, then, we see a woman, a Canaanite woman, come to Jesus, the King of the Jews, with a faith rivalled by few. Not only does she recognise Jesus as the one through whom alone salvation will come, but, being well versed herself in the Hebrew scriptures, including perhaps our First Reading, she calls Jesus “Son of David.”

Jesus left Gennesaret and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Then out came a Canaanite woman from that district and started shouting, ‘Sir, Son of David, take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’

Now, what Jesus does in return is what I call “classic Jesus.” He does exactly what is needed to test our faith and see if we really mean it — He ignores her. In fact, even more characteristic of Jesus, He waits till she has called out three times!

But He answered her not a word. And His disciples went and pleaded with Him. ‘Give her what she wants,’ they said ‘because she is shouting after us.’ He said in reply, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’

Notice here that Jesus also tests His disciples. Jesus knows that He has come to bring Salvation to the world. It is true that He has come to do it through the Jews but it is meant to extend to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:6-8). Yet, He says that He has come for the lost sheep of the House of Israel. His disciples don't challenge Him on that issue, but the foreigner does.

But the woman had come up and was kneeling at his feet. ‘Lord,’ she said ‘help me.’ He replied, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.’

“Dogs” was a derogatory epithet that Jews used to describe non-Jews. Again, none of this is Jesus being mean or nasty; it’s Jesus bringing out of the woman the insistence and perseverance that one ought to have when pleading with Jesus. As we said last week, you need to recognise who Jesus really is before you can enter into relationship with Him.

She retorted, ‘Ah yes, sir; but even house-dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.’ And from that moment her daughter was well again.

The woman had great faith because she understood how God operates. She understood that, in fact, she was not part of the Covenant. She could have used a more modern argument saying that she was just as human as any Jew. She could have criticised the Jews’ hypocrisy. Instead, she acknowledges herself as a “dog” and pleads for mercy. She pleads that some of Christ’s mercy might roll off of the Jews’ table on to the floor for her to take.

In the prayer of the blessing of the ashes for Ash Wednesday, the Liturgy tells us something beautiful about God. See here:

O God, who are moved by acts of humility and respond with forgiveness to works of penance…

God is moved by an act of humility on our part! This is exactly why Jesus grants this woman’s request. Her humility is spot on. Remember, humility is not self-loathing but rather an accurate estimation of oneself and one’s abilities in relation to God’s.

St Paul in our Second Reading, writing to the Romans (non-Jews), speaks about how salvation came first to the Jews and has been rejected by them and how, now, salvation is coming to the gentiles (the proper term for a non-Jew). St Paul also tells us that before time is up, the Jews will come to Christ.

This Sunday, let us come to Christ at His table with the gratitude of one who has received His salvation as a non-Jew. The mission to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, entrusted to the Apostles, reached you and me. Let us not feign to carry that mission farther, for there are many who are yet to hear the Good News.

“Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.”

See you next week on Seeking the Word!


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