The extract from St Matthew’s Gospel presented to us this Sunday seems to present us with a somewhat different aspect of Jesus’ character than we have seen until now. He seems unusually brusque and dismissive of the Canaanite woman. She wants a demon cast out from her daughter and is remarkably persistent even resorting to shouting after Jesus and his companions in an effort to embarrass him into exorcising the girl.
Jesus says that he is sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, implying that his miracles and healing are only for the Jews. Of course, we know that this is not so. We can think of many examples where Jesus worked miracles in the case of non-Jews. After all Jesus healed the Centurion’s servant among lots of others.
We know that Jesus was sent to save everyone; we know that he came to redeem every single human being not only the People of Israel. However, we sometimes get the impression from the Gospels that Jesus only widened his mission to include the Gentiles after the Jews rejected him.
But knowing that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he has knowledge of everything that has happened and everything that ever will happen, means we realise that from the very beginning he must have intended his work of salvation to be for the whole of humanity not just the Jewish people.
This leaves us with the question of what was going on in this incident with the Canaanite woman. My suggestion is that Jesus was drawing her out. I think that by at first ignoring her, and then declaring that his mission was not directed at pagans like her but to the Jews, he was actually getting her to demonstrate the depth of her faith.
She is remarkably persistent and she has a ready answer to Jesus objection that his mission is not directed at the pagans. She says that even the dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table. It is this that tips the balance and from that moment her daughter was well again.
So, my understanding is that Jesus is being a bit off hand with her in order to get her to express the depth of her faith. Of course, any mother will do whatever she needs to do to make her daughter well again. But by forcing her to express her belief in him Jesus demonstrates that faith is not the exclusive preserve of the Jews. We can think of numerous other examples of this strategy scattered through the Gospels.
Yes, the Jews were the Chosen People but this means that the Messiah was to come from among their number not that they had a monopoly on faith. It certainly did not mean that salvation was only for them.
We know that their idea of what the Messiah would be like and how he would achieve his victory was pretty wide of the mark. Their idea of what was to happen was framed by their own way of looking at the world and how it was organised. In fact, their thinking about the Messiah was really only another way of strengthening the power of the elite groups who were in control of the nation.
The conclusion we are being invited to draw from this story of the Canaanite woman is that salvation is meant for everyone. In our society today, when secularism is in the ascendancy and the great majority of people have no use for organised religion, it is hard for us to know how to make this truth more widely known.
We have been entrusted with a message of great importance for the world; it is our task to make Christ known and to help people to see that he has made salvation possible for the whole human race. The difficulty we face today is that most people do not even recognise that there is any necessity for salvation. While many people living around us live by an excellent moral code most of them do not realise that this has its origins in the Christian way of looking at the world.
Many of us find it even difficult to pass on the truths of the faith to our own children. Young people today are being constantly bombarded by all kinds of views pushed at them by the media and our ideas about God and man’s place in relation to him ends up being pushed to the side-lines.
What I think we have to try and convey is that our faith in God and all that comes with it is not part of a folk-tale that we have mistaken for a set of truths. We want other people to understand that our particular beliefs are part of a great stream of thought and culture that stems ultimately from God himself. We want them to appreciate that our faith has been tried and tested and not found wanting by many of the greatest thinkers in history.
What we believe is no fairy story but rather a set of truths that are fundamental to any right-thinking view of man’s place in the world. Actually, according to us, it is the world-view peddled by the mass media that is fanciful. We know that there is no true fulfilment to be found in a purely materialistic view of the world.
We know that much of what is presented to us as an enlightened modern way of looking at things is in fact deeply flawed and is more likely to lead to the destruction of mankind rather than his fulfilment.
In the face of all this we need the persistence of the Canaanite woman. We need to continue to proclaim our faith, we ought to be constantly explaining to other people the profound understanding of the world and man’s role in it that is part and parcel of our faith. We should talk to people about sin and its destructive power and explain to them how we can overcome it.
Maybe doing these things won’t win us many friends, but at least no one will be able to say that we were gifted the secret of everlasting life and kept it to ourselves. Let that Canaanite woman be our example and let us be quick with our arguments and have answers ready for those who dismiss our faith and belittle our beliefs.
Christ was a bit off-hand with that woman as a way of getting her to express her faith. Let us be like her and be fearless in explaining to others those things that bring true meaning and purpose to our lives.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket