In last Sunday’s Gospel, 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 has 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 (cf. 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 basis on which to claim some right to the Lord’s favor. However, the woman outshines Peter in the one thing that truly matters: faith – strong, persevering, humble faith.
The Israelites, that is, 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, your God; he has chosen you from all the nations on the face of the earth to be a people peculiarly his own” (Dt 7:6). Last Sunday we read St. Paul’s summary of the great blessings God gave to his people the Israelites: “Theirs were the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (Rm 9:4-5).
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 being a physical descendant of Abraham was more important than living by Abraham’s faith. The prophets taught otherwise, as we see in today’s first reading. Isaiah clearly proclaims that foreigners too, if they “join themselves to the Lord” and follow the covenant, will 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 peoples.”
The Canaanite woman in the Gospel shows how 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 has come into her neighborhood, there is no need for her to go elsewhere in order to be counted among God’s people. She finds salvation by putting her faith in Jesus. She honors 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 begs Jesus to have pity on her daughter, their prejudice comes spilling out in their words: “Send her away!” They will not put up with being pestered by a “dog.” 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 into 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 the way 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 not have 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 has had in mind all along, that this woman is not a dog at all; 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 proper 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; he 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.
Does the strong, preserving and humble faith of the Canaanite woman challenge my faith? Do I harbor the attitude of entitlement? Has the sin of prejudice entered my heart as I fall into an attitude of superiority over others?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 16, no. 6. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.