People of God, today’s Gospel reading is somewhat provocative, in that by showing us something of the intimate Personal character of Jesus it invites us to pay greater attention to our own attitude towards God and religion in general, and to our Catholic life of faith in and with Jesus in particular.
Jesus had left Israel and was walking with His disciples through a Gentile region where men and women did not talk freely to strangers of the opposite sex – as is the case even today, we are told, in conservative areas. Rabbis, Indeed, did not even talk to female members of their own families in public. Consequently, there was nothing strange in Jesus’ ignoring the cries of the Syro-phoenician woman.
However, here at the very beginning, the story is already provoking us with regard to Jesus’ behaviour; for surely, not a few critical observers will at this very moment be thinking that it was not very ‘nice’ of Jesus to ignore the woman thus. After all, is there not a widespread conviction that religion is mainly about ‘being nice to people’? And if, for some, there is more to religion than that, nevertheless, ‘niceness to others’ is Popularity’s supreme criterion for judging it.
The woman in our Gospel story was herself quite aware of the barrier of social impropriety for her – a woman and a Gentile – to be thus publicly addressing Jesus, a Jewish man, for she put on a smattering of Jewishness by calling out from among the crowd to Him as might a troubled co-religionist have done:
Have pity on me Lord, Son of David!
However, she then went on to make herself not only something of a nuisance but also rather troublesome and disturbing to Jesus’ disciples, who, in some measure seeking to protect Jesus, drew closer to Him and whispered urgently:
Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.
Jesus’ reply to such words shows us just how far the popular idea that religion is about being nice to people was and is from Jesus’ own Personal attitude:
He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Notice, People of God, how decisively and deliberately Jesus reveals to His closest circle of disciples, and to us this day, that His deepest and most heart-felt concern for the ultimate success of His public ministry was that He be found doing the will of the One -- His Father -- Who had sent Him:
I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
At this juncture I want you to recall how Jesus responded to His Mother Mary’s strange behaviour at the marriage feast in Cana when she told the servants:
Do whatever He tells you.
Jesus had not intended doing anything at that moment and so Mary’s behaviour was not only unusual and rather awkward for Him, but also somewhat embarrassing.
The Syro-phoenician women causes something of a like difficulty here:
(She) came and did Him homage, saying, “Lord, help me”.
Jesus adverted to the woman directly only after having rejected His disciples’ call for Him to get rid of her; nevertheless, that intervention by the disciples seems to have given the woman confidence or opportunity enough to come forward quickly and throw herself at Jesus' feet asking for a miraculous cure for her daughter. Here it is that Jesus breaks His silence in regard to the woman; and this is something we should carefully note and store in our memory:
God never ignores the prayers of Mother Church, the Bride and Body of His Christ.
And so it was with Jesus in our Gospel reading. His apparent refusal:
It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,
was both uncompromising and uncomplimentary. Nevertheless, it contained a hidden treasure -- to be discovered only according to the woman’s right dispositions, which thankfully (for we also can profit from her blessing) she was able to show -- a most beautiful grace that provoked (that word again!) her to pour out words unplanned and most beautiful.
It is important for us to understand the mind of Jesus here. St. John tells us that Jesus once explained that He had not come here on earth merely of His own will; He had been sent by His Father, and consequently was here among men only for express purpose of doing His Father's will:
I came down from heaven not to do My own will but the will of the One Who sent Me.
He did not say He had come among us to do good as He Himself thought; and ‘a priori’ He had not come to do what ‘people’ thought was ‘good’ or imagined ‘would be nice’. He had come because He had been sent: sent to do the goodness willed by His Father and thus to proclaim His Father’s glory and serve our salvation, as He once declared:
Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. (Mark 10:18)
There we have the key to most of our world's sufferings today. There are so many people, often called do-gooders, who are prominent and vocal in society and in government, some indeed are judges and law makers in national and multi-national organizations, and all will say they seek to do good, and probably regard themselves as sincere. But such sincerity is not enough, because the good they seek is, at the best, a good that they themselves -- as members and promoters of a predominantly secular, and proudly anti-religious society -- approve of; in other words, a humanistic, rationalistic, idea of what is good for mankind.
Jesus, on the other hand, did not seek to do good as men saw it, He sought to do the only real and true good for humanity made by God; that is, the will of the God Who fashioned them in His own likeness: His Father's will for the children He is seeking to save.
So here, at this stage in our Gospel reading, we find Jesus seeking to discover what ‘qualifications’, so to speak, this woman had from His Father; for His Father had not sent Him to serve the pagan peoples around but only 'the lost sheep of the house of Israel'. He therefore said, speaking somewhat sharply to the woman:
It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.
How many people today would have stormed off in a fever of self-righteous indignation after words of that sort! In fact, in today’s modern, super-sensitive and sanctimonious Britain, they could possibly be construed not only as politically incorrect, but even legally criminal words, words expressing racial hatred!!
This woman was not of such an ilk, however, and this is where we must start to learn about ourselves from her example of marvellous humility, because she was deeply aware of both her daughter’s, and her own, great need, and of the undeniable power and unmistakable holiness of this Jewish man Jesus from Whom she was seeking a healing miracle for her daughter. So many of those who decry or ignore God and the Church today are filled with human imaginations of their own personal dignity and secular rights which impose no limits to the abuse of their tongues, whilst having little or no awareness of the spiritual depths of the subjects they address, let alone reverence or awe, for the supreme majesty and sublime holiness of the God they presume to reproach.
This wonderfully humble woman of the Gospel, however, answered Jesus in all humility and truth, and speaking with a simplicity and wisdom that were not her own, she said:
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Unknown to herself she had, with those beautifully humble and unstudied words presented her credentials (so to speak): for Jesus recognized at once that such wisdom could only have been given her by His Father. And so, without further ado – for had He not come for but one purpose, to do His Father’s will? -- He said:
O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.
St. Matthew, recounting that event, was showing his converts, both Jewish and pagan, and is also telling us today, that a miraculous event is nothing more than a few crumbs in comparison with the heavenly banquet prepared in heaven for Jesus’ disciples and for all those who will subsequently become children of God the Father through faith in His Son. We who are present at Mass, who offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice and share in the Eucharistic food, ought to recognize and appreciate that we are thereby sharing in and partaking of a treasure incomparably more stupendous and awe-inspiring than any miraculous cure. We would be thrilled if a miracle were to take place here in our midst, why are we not more thrilled by this beginning of heavenly realities and blessings beyond our imagination? The reason is that we can only come to such an appreciation by an active faith: not just coldly believing mere words without being caught up or involved, but a loving and humble faith which deeply appreciates and wholeheartedly responds, faith such as that of the Canaanite woman, of whom Jesus most approvingly said, O woman, great is your faith!
By nature we are sensitive, responsive, to physical blessings and miracles. By faith we must endeavour, strive, long, to find ourselves growing more and more aware of and responsive to the supremely wonderful blessings and miracles of grace offered to us in the sacramental life and public prayer of Mother Church, and to be enriched by the wondrous privilege of personal prayer in the Spirit, with Jesus, before the Father. This, I believe, is a truly essential work incumbent upon us as Catholics today.
The Canaanite woman appreciated and loved her daughter by nature. She came to appreciate Jesus first of all from what she had heard of Him; and then she did all she could – not to everybody’s liking, indeed, as was the case for blind Bartimeus also -- to draw close to Him, approaching Him above all with humility, aware of His majesty and her own need. And yet, although she was so humble, she was also most courageous. Her courage -- whereby she would not allow herself to be put-off from her desire to meet and plead personally with Jesus -- was not only stronger than any belligerence with others, but also very much more discerning and effective; for she was wonderfully firm and courageous with herself, refusing to be drowned by self-pity or exalted by pseudo-indignation, on hearing words of Jesus whose apparent meaning and deepest, hidden, purpose she could in no way understand.
People of God, we, each and every one of us, have to try to develop such a faith within us: a humble seeking, a persevering longing, and an ever more grateful and responsive faith. Without such faith we will, at the very best, only be able to digest scraps from the table of the Lord; which would indeed be tragic, because we have been called personally to the fullness of faith in Mother Church and are being prepared to participate in a banquet of heavenly proportions. It is up to us: we have been invited and Mother Church cannot fail us on the way, the Holy Spirit guarantees that. So let us help ourselves and try to help each other, for, as St. Paul tells us:
The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.