In our liturgy today we are considering the tension in the
early Church between the Jews, the Chosen People, and
the Gentiles. This might not seem to us today to be a
very important topic; we might think of it as an old
problem and something not really worthy of our
And yet arguments about who is in and who is out are just as relevant today as they have ever been. And in any case we are dealing with the scriptures, with the words and actions of Jesus and the problems of the first Christian communities and all of these must be relevant to any serious Christian.
The woman is a Canaanite. In the similar but briefer account in Mark Chapter Seven she is referred to as a Syro-Phoenician woman. In both accounts she is clearly a pagan but by calling her by the ancient and somewhat derogatory term Canaanite Matthew raises the question of the settlement of the Chosen People in the land of Canaan. The Canaanites were the dispossessed former inhabitants of Israel and any contact with them was practically forbidden.
I don’t want to be too controversial, but in the very same area today there are quite a number of dispossessed people. There are dispossessed people not only in Palestine but in many other parts of our world also. When it comes to the scriptures you never have to look very hard to find relevance!
Jesus uses very strong language, perhaps even shocking language to our ears when he refers to the Canaanites as “dogs not fit to eat the children’s food”. This is not characteristic of Jesus and here he is surely repeating the kind of language used to reinforce the discriminatory behaviour of the Jews.
Perhaps he does this with irony, though there is no indication in the text that this is so. Jesus knows he has come for the salvation of the Gentiles as well as the Jews, he knows that the Gentiles are not excluded from God’s plan. And he is normally open-hearted and welcoming to all yet here he is seemingly refusing to heal this lady’s daughter and using as an excuse the fact that she is not a Jew.
None of this squares with the Jesus we have come to know and love, so what is going on?
Let me suggest that this passage has some relevance for the community in which Matthew is living and for whom he is writing.
This community we know included both convert Jews and convert Gentiles and it is strongly suspected that there was some tension between them. Being converted to Christianity doesn’t change all your attitudes at once; it is a life-long process. And we often retain attitudes from our background culture which are in contradiction with our faith and yet we do not easily recognise this. So it is no surprise to find the tensions outside of the Christian community reflected also within it.
Even though they had become Christians the Jews quite likely still had the notion that they were of the Chosen People, and they were not wrong. They faced the problem now that they had become Christians of making sense of their chosenness. What did being a member of a chosen race mean when now as Christians they seemed to be on the same level as Gentiles?
According to the Jews the fact that they were God’s Chosen People meant that they had privileged role in God’s plan for salvation. The problem is that it is easy to go on from this to conclude that they therefore had a privileged place in the kingdom but this is not something that could ever be guaranteed.
Certainly God singled out the Jews to be his Chosen People. It is through them that he revealed himself to the world. But now in the new dispensation it is through Jesus the Jew that all come to be saved. This Jewishness of Jesus is very important for it is through him that the promise of Abraham was fulfilled.
This the first and perhaps the most important promise of God is fulfilled in the very person of Jesus. The Jews are the chosen people and Jesus the Jew is the Messiah. They are privileged because it is from among them that the Messiah comes but this does not mean that they have a free-pass to heaven; they have to work just as hard to get there as anyone else.
We Catholics risk falling into a similar trap. We know that we possess the fullness of the truth of the Gospel in the doctrines and traditions of the Church. In this we are greatly privileged; but that does not mean that it is any easier for an individual Catholic to gain entry to the Kingdom of Heaven.
We are chosen by God; singled out to be bearers of the Good News in the world today. In this we are the most fortunate of people. But we still have to live our life in accordance with these values and that is just as difficult for us as it is for anyone else.
What is important is our faith. Not how much we have but what we do with what we’ve got. The Canaanite woman was a pagan but Jesus commends her faith and gives her what she wants. The Pharisees are filled to the brim with beliefs and doctrines but Jesus condemns their hypocrisy.
Certainly Jesus wants faith but it must be sincere faith; faith with humility and love. He is attracted also to people with needs. This Canaanite woman has all these things and she is in real need for her daughter is dreadfully afflicted and because of the love she has for her daughter she is prepared to cross all sorts of boundaries to find healing for her.
Her persistence and astuteness is rewarded by Jesus because it reflects the depth of love she has for her daughter. She seeks no privileged place in the Kingdom, she is a member of no chosen race, rather the contrary. She seeks nothing for herself and it is precisely because of these things that Jesus compliments her on her faith and restores her daughter to health and wholeness.
The lesson for us is clear: our Catholicism is not our key to the Kingdom but a sign for the world. It is on how well we perform our task of being a sign for the world and on how well we live out the Gospel that we will be judged. The label is not a ticket it is a responsibility.
Digest of Articles from Catholic Blogs and Websites
August 17, 2014
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A—August 17, 2014
Today, as Jesus travels away from Jerusalem toward the region of the Gentiles, He meets a Canaanite woman who desperately needs His help. Why did He give her the cold shoulder?
Gospel (Read Mt 15:21-28)
To best understand this Gospel episode, we need to know that it follows a description of the great opposition Jesus faced from the Pharisees in Jerusalem. Even though He was performing amazing miracles of healing (read Mt 14:36), the Pharisees could only find fault with Him (read Mt 15:2). Jesus got frustrated with them, calling them “blind guides” (Mt 15:14). He decided to leave the city and head north, up to the region of Tyre and Sidon. These were cities in Phoenicia, territory that was primarily Gentile, not Jewish. It almost seems as if He wanted to get as far away from the hard-hearted Pharisees as He could.
Twentieth Sunday: The Humility to Experience His Love in Others
The initial reaction I had to this Sunday’s readings was: Huh? Here we have Paul speaking in circles to the Romans, “you have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now disobeyed in order that, by virtue of the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.” Huh? Then we have the incident of Jesus and the Canaanite women. She has a real need, and she cries out to him. But He refers to her people as dogs and says that he came only for the lost sheep of the House of Israel. Huh?
Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time , Cycle A
Matthew 15 : 21 – 28
This Gospel account involving the Canaanite woman is similar to the story earlier in Matthew of the Centurion. In both of these accounts you have a Gentile approach Jesus asking him to heal someone. For the Canaanite woman it was her daughter, and for the centurion his servant. In both cases Jesus reaches beyond the mission which his followers assumed was to the lost sheep of Israel, and honors the faith of the Gentile. Taking the message of Jesus to the Gentiles was a mission that the Apostles and early Christians struggled with and oftentimes resisted. How did the Apostles finally follow the example of Jesus and break out of their narrow vision into the broader vision of Christ’s mission?
On Praying for our Children – Reflection for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.
Our Savior, willing to be conquered by the prayers of the Canaanite woman, did not disdain to free her daughter from demonic oppression. This mother’s prayers won the mercy of Jesus and inspire all parents as they entreat our Lord for every good thing for their children.
How is it that our prayers for others can be of value? What can a parent do to pray more effectively for his children? Why does God seem at times to ignore our petitions for the conversion of children, relatives, and friends?
The example of this woman will profit is greatly as we answer these questions.
Why We Must Pray
Why do people not pray enough? The answer is partly because they do not want to make the effort to begin, and partly because they do not know how to go on once they have begun. A lot of this difficulty would be cleared up if people would only understand that prayer comes from God, is kept going by God, and finds its way back to God by its own power. All we have to do is to lend ourselves to the process as generously as we can, and not put any obstacles in the way.
Why Be Catholic? Patrick Madrid Has All the Answers
Have you ever read a book by Patrick Madrid? If you have, I’ll bet you haven’t stopped at just one–that his easy style, clarity and humor captivated you, and you’ve picked up another of his titles along the way.
I’m a fan, and here’s why: Patrick is a master of Plainspeak–not lofty theological prose which only a doctoral candidate could wade through, but clear, direct explanations for Catholic teachings and traditions. He writes apologetics for the masses, and I think he’s just what the doctor ordered for most folks who are casually inquiring about the Faith.
Ten Helps to Grow in Prayer
The following is a short article to encourage all of us to desire to grow in our prayer life, seek the means to grow, but especially to persevere in this most important of activates—our salvation, the salvation of our families and loved ones, and the salvation of the whole world depends on men and women who have decided to dedicate their lives to prayer, which is the key to heaven.