User’s Guide to Sunday, Aug. 20
Today’s Gospel teaches us to pray always and not to lose heart. It is about being tenacious in prayer, continuing to beseech the Lord, even when the results are discouraging. Let’s look at this Gospel in five stages.
“At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” Jesus goes north of Israel into the territory we know today as Lebanon. It is pagan territory, a rather odd destination for a Jewish preacher. But Jesus is preparing the Church for a mission to all the nations. The Gospel must break the boundaries of nations and races and be truly universal, truly catholic. The first reading today prophesies this: “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord … and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer.”
“A Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, ‘Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Canaanites were despised by Jews, and Jews were despised by Canaanites. What is it that would make a Canaanite woman reach out to a Jewish Messiah? In a word, desperation. She no longer cares who helps her daughter as long as someone helps her! A common enemy can often unite disparate factions. It should not be necessary, but the Lord uses whatever means he can in order to unite us.
“But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and told him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.’ He said in reply, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ … ‘It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.’” Jesus does a shocking and daring thing here. He takes up the voice of sin, oppression, racism and nationalism. The usual explanation is that Jesus is calling out the woman’s faith and through her is summoning his disciples to repentance, who want the Lord to order her away. In effect, he takes up their voices and the voice of all oppression and utters the hateful sayings of the world.
“But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ She said, ‘Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.’” Note here that the woman is not put off. Whatever anger, grief or discouragement she may feel, she perseveres. She is even bold and creative. In a sense, she will not take no for an answer. She is like the widow of the parable who never stopped pestering the judge for a favorable ruling (Luke 18:1-8).
“Then Jesus said to her in reply, ‘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.” Here is the victory: She has gone from torment to triumph by a tenacious and tested faith. Jesus now takes away the veil of his role and shows his true self — the merciful, wonder-working Messiah and Lord.
Jesus says to her, “Great is your faith.” But how has it become so?
In the crucible of testing, that’s how.
We may wonder at God’s delays, at his seeming disinterest or even anger, but in the end it is our faith that is most important to him.