Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 20, 2023 — Year A
Readings: Is 56:1, 6-7 / Ps 67 / Rom 11:13-15, 29-32 / Mt 15:21-28
by Rev. Nixon Negparanon, Pastor
A man was walking close to a steep cliff, lost his footing, and plunged over the side. As he was falling, he grabbed the branch of a tree that was sticking out about halfway down the cliff. He managed to hang onto the weak limb with both hands. He looked up and saw that the cliff was almost perfectly straight and that he was a long way from the top. He looked down and it was a long, long way down to the rock bottom. At this point, the man decided that it was time to pray.
He yelled out, “God, if you are there, help me.” About that time, he heard a deep voice coming from high up above that said, “I’m here, my son, have no fear.” The man was a little startled at first by God’s voice, but he pleaded, “Can you help me?” God replied, “Yes, I can, my son, but you have to have faith. Do you trust me?” The man answered, “Yes, Lord, I trust you.” God said, “Do you really trust me?” The man, who was trying to hold on, replied, “Yes, Lord, I really trust you.”
Then God said, “This is what I want you to do. Let go of the limb. Trust me; everything will be all right.” The man looked down at the rocks below, then he looked up at the steep cliff above him and yelled, “Is there anybody else up there who can help me?”
Brothers and sisters, in last Sunday’s gospel, we heard that Jesus chastised Peter for having so little faith. In today’s gospel, he honors a pagan woman for having great faith. The comparison between Peter and the woman gives us a valuable instruction. We naturally assume that Peter, a Jewish man and close follower of Jesus, must have a great advantage over a Gentile woman who had never even seen the Lord.
Peter was one of the children of Israel; he belonged at the table. He had never eaten anything profane or unclean in his whole life, and that can be found in Acts 10:14. The woman was an outsider. She was looked down on by the Jews as unclean and unworthy, one of the dogs. She had no business claiming some right to the Lord’s favor. However, the woman outshines Peter in the one thing that truly matters: faith – a strong, persevering, humble faith.
The Israelites, Abraham and his descendants, were given a unique privilege. They were the first people to whom the Lord chose to reveal himself. As Moses told the people when they were on the verge of entering the Promised Land, “You are a people sacred to the Lord God. He has chosen you from all the nations on the face of the earth to be a people particularly his own” (Dt 7:6).
The idea sometimes arose among the chosen people that, since they were specially chosen by God, other peoples were excluded from His love. They misunderstood the favor of God as a kind of ethnic superiority. They thought that being a physical descendant of Abraham was more important than living by Abraham’s faith. The prophets thought otherwise.
As we see in today’s first reading, Isaiah clearly proclaims that foreigners too, if they joined themselves to the Lord and followed the covenant, would find a place with the Jews in the house of the Lord. Indeed, the Lord reveals that His plan includes everyone. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”
The Canaanite woman in the Gospel shows that this prophecy came to be fulfilled. If she had gone to the temple in Jerusalem, she would have been strictly forbidden to enter. However, now that Jesus had come into her neighborhood, there was no need for her to go elsewhere in order to be counted among God’s people. She found salvation by putting her faith in Jesus. She honored Him as the Messiah, crying out to Him, “Lord, son of David.”
In order to benefit from the beautiful example of this woman of faith, we must first identify and overcome the sin of prejudice in our hearts. How easily we fall into an attitude of superiority over others. Prejudice prevents us from seeing the goodness of other people, simply because they fall outside of our narrow criteria of goodness. The problem is on display in the scornful attitude of the disciples. When the Canaanite woman begged Jesus to heal her daughter, their prejudice came spilling out in their words, “Send her away.” They would not put up with being pestered by a “dog.”
Brothers and sisters, whenever we let this sort of attitude take hold of us, whenever we are saying or thinking about anyone, “Send her away” or “Send him away,” we shut ourselves in a small box, where we breathe only the stale air of our own opinions. Prejudice is an offense against the dignity of others, but it is also a self-imposed limitation on our love. Ultimately, it is a rejection of the love of God.
This is not what we have learned from Jesus Christ. He fills us with His spirit of love, so that we may be free from slavery to sin. Jesus’ own attitude toward the Canaanite woman is revealed to us only gradually. He never closes His heart to her, of course, but He does subject her faith to a series of tests. At first, He is simply silent, then He tells her that His mission is to the Jews. When she persists, falling before Him and pleading for His help, He tells her that it is not fitting to throw the food of the children to the dogs.
This sort of language is jarring to us. It sounds like an intolerable insult, like a slap in the face. In fact, in the context of the times, it would have not sounded nearly so harsh. Jesus’ point is to distinguish between the Jews and the Gentiles.
The Jews are the first to be fed with the message of salvation. The word “dogs” here refers not to street dogs, but to little domestic pets. They live in the household, but they are not children of the family. However, Jesus’ statement may have struck her in a remarkable way. The woman gently turns his own words against him. The insult suddenly becomes an argument in her favor.
With no hint of offense or discouragement and with no attitude of entitlement, she makes a claim based on her strong faith. The banquet of the Lord is so great that even to receive a few crumbs falling from the table will be enough to heal her daughter. The Lord finds this declaration irresistible. He immediately proclaims what He had in mind all along, that this woman is not a dog. She is an admirable woman of great faith. His harsh treatment of her has brought out the best in her.
This wonderful episode shows us what great faith really looks like in practice. It is not a matter of belonging to the right social class. It does not depend on mastering all the properly religious words and rituals. It does not seek to prove to anyone that we are holy or deserving of divine favor. Great faith is persevering and humble.
Sometimes the Lord is silent and does not say a word in answer to us. Sometimes He reminds us of our insignificance or our weakness or our unworthiness. None of these are obstacles to us if we have faith. They simply purify us of all self-importance and make us more ready to receive the Lord’s favor. Nothing is impossible for us when we have great faith, because nothing is impossible for the Lord in whom we trust.