Every year there are a few gospel readings that are truly difficult to interpret and can give the homilist a veritable nightmare. Today’s gospel is one of them. Jesus’ behaviour towards the Canaanite woman is so uncharacteristic of him that it puzzles us, to say the least. The woman’s humble plea for Jesus to heal her daughter who was tormented by a demon was met with silence, then a rebuff (“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”) and finally an outright insult (“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”). In the end, the woman’s persistence and unwavering faith prevailed and obtained for her the miracle from Jesus.
What can we make of this? Some writers suggest that this particular incident reveals the awakening of Jesus’ messianic consciousness and marks the inauguration of his universal mission which started in Israel and was now extending to the Gentiles. I’m not a theologian, and I really don’t understand how that explains. My own understanding of Jesus’ disturbing conduct comes from a familiar experience that resonates with that of the Canaanite woman.
We too have had moments in our life when God seemed silent to our prayers. “Natutulog ba ang Diyos?” was a question we have asked ourselves more than once. There were also times when we felt that the more we prayed, the deeper we sank in our problems. We certainly can relate with what the poor Canaanite woman went through. The only difference is that while she remained humble and steadfast in her faith in Jesus, we might not have. We took offense at the “insensitivity” of God and sulked. Like spoiled children, we demanded the food from the Father’s table which we deemed our right.
I think today’s gospel is, for all of us who are God’s children, whether born through baptism or through the covenant, a reminder of who we are and who God is. The Canaanite woman was a pagan and an outsider. Yet she recognized Jesus as the Son of David and acknowledged him as Lord.
More than her dogged persistence, Jesus commended the woman for her great faith. Hers was an amazing faith of a Gentile, greater than that of any Israelite, or disciple, or even apostle. Remember last Sunday’s gospel? Jesus reprimanded Peter for his little faith. Today, he commends the Canaanite woman for her great faith. Even before Jesus granted the miracle of healing her daughter, she knelt and paid homage to Jesus as Lord. Peter and the disciples worshipped Jesus only after the miraculous calming of the storm.
It is faith that makes us recognize who we are in front of God as creatures utterly helpless and totally dependent. When we feel that our prayers are not immediately answered, we are simply reminded that God is not a push button or some manipulable handle. Faith bids us to put ourselves completely in God’s hands and trust that he would take charge and take care.
Today’s gospel assures us that God will answer our every prayer, but not always immediately. He prepares us for his gift by testing, purifying and strengthening our faith. He withholds our request so that we may be inspired to persevere in prayer. In turn, our perseverance allows our heart to expand and thus be able to receive his grace, which far exceeds what we pray for.
Our three readings speak of the universality of salvation. Today more than ever, we need to be reminded of this great and fundamental truth. Unfortunately, all over the world people are discriminated because of color, culture, belief, religion and all kinds of differences. We are all God’s children, redeemed by the blood of Christ. This makes each and every one of us precious in the eyes of God and valuable in each other’s eyes.
While our gospel seems to be a heavy reading, it actually has a light ending. When the Canaanite woman outwitted Jesus by saying that even the dogs eat from the leavings of the master’s table, the Lord must have belted out a loud and hearty laugh.
This same divine humor was also manifested when another woman complained why God was treating her so. That was what St. Teresa of Avila told Jesus when she fell from the carriage and landed in the mud. Jesus’ answer was, “That is how I treat my friends.” To which Teresa retorted, “No wonder, you have so few.”
It might help to remember the words of Jesus when you feel that your prayers are not immediately answered or when it feels like God is testing you too hard. Congratulations, you’ve have just entered into his circle of friends.*