20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
One day, I was reading my Facebook page as I always do at certain times of the day and I saw this beautiful quote, “God doesn’t say NO to our prayers. God has three answers, either he says, YES, AT A LATER TIME, or I HAVE A BETTER IDEA.
The Canaanite woman in the gospel for today never gives up even if she gets insulted by Jesus himself.
Jesus travelled to the districts of Tyre and Sidon. Those places were pagan territories. Jews, especially the ultra-nationalistic ones, would never talk to anybody who was not Jewish. However, during that time of Jesus’ visit, he had become quite well known to the area, so it wasn’t surprising that a Canaanite woman would approach him so that her daughter would be cured from the demon’s torment. Surprisingly, Jesus rebuffed her several times insisting that he had only come to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”.
Matthew, the author of this gospel, portrayed Jesus initially as a person sent only for the Jews. For the first part of Jesus’ ministry, it seemed that his only concern was for the Jewish people. And throughout the earlier chapters of the gospel of Matthew, this seems to be the case. Jesus mingled with Jews and he ministered to these people, he cured their sick, and he fed them. However because of this episode things would start to change.
After pleading with Jesus several times, Jesus became exasperated at the woman and said, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” In this passage, Jesus is referring to the Jewish people as the children and to the Gentiles, or more specifically to the Canaanite people, as the dogs or in some translations house dogs or puppies. But this woman, maybe out of sheer desperation has an answer, “Please Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” In Jewish culture, Jews ate with their bare hands, then when their hands became too oily from the food, since napkins or serviettes (as we say in New Zealand/Australia), hadn’t been invented yet, the Jews used pieces of thin bread to wipe their hands with and throw it underneath the table where the dogs would eat them. In other words, the Canaanite woman knew her place in the eyes of Jesus and his society and she wasn’t asking for the food, what she was asking for were just those pieces of thin bread with scraps. She believes that it is not too much to ask for Jesus to deliver a cure for her daughter. And with this tremendous faith, her wish was granted.
Matthew’s gospel was meant for his community with an almost equal mix of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Matthew is aware that the Jewish Christians believe that Jesus came to this world to save only the Jews. However, Matthew was quick to point out through this episode of Jesus’ life that Jesus also had a change of understanding of his mission and that his mission not only consists of Jews but it is also for the Gentiles. And this is even more evident in the two stories of the feeding of the multitudes. In the first feeding (Matthew 14, 15-21), there were leftovers of 12 baskets, 12 baskets being the symbol of the 12 tribes of Israel. In the second feeding (Matthew 15, 29-39) there were leftovers of seven baskets. Seven baskets being the symbol of all of the people, Jews and Gentiles for seven is what the Jews believed as the complete number, the number symbolising everybody.
Sadly, there are various Christian sects and denominations that believe that if you don’t join their church you won’t be saved. There was even one who went to the extent of saying that because of what is said in the book of Revelation that there will only be 144,000 sealed and saved, so this church believed that they’re the only ones who are going to be saved because of their few numbers. However, when this church exceeded 144,000 members, they claimed that the number was merely symbolic.
The healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman has tought us two things. First, for one to exhibit great faith, one should be able to be persistent and insistent in asking God one’s wishes. And we believe that if it were for us, then God would grant our prayers. Second, we must remember that God’s love and mercy is boundless. God’s love is given to all people, be that Jewish, Christians, Muslims, Atheists and others. We can never claim God only for ourselves but we must be able to share God will all men and women.
Hopefully, the gospel for today will make us more persistent and persevering in our faith and at the same time open our minds for dialogue with other faiths and beliefs for our God is present to all of us.