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Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 14, 2011 (20A)
By Fr. John Foley, S. J.
Sunday’s Gospel can give a headache to preachers and to Catholics in the pews both. Jesus refuses to heal a woman because she is, in his metaphor, one of the “dogs.” Ieeeeeee.
You know the story. The Canaanite woman cries out for help and Jesus at first will not even talk to her. The disciples demand that he send her away because she is a trouble-maker, and he seems to agree with them. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says. She is from Canaan.
Finally the poor woman walks right up, does “homage” to Jesus and says, “Lord, help me.”
Jesus would never ignore such words, at least so we Christians and Catholics believe. Nor should we ever be deaf to words like this in our own daily lives.
But no. He says to her, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
Ouch. This is the line that is so hard for us to understand. So un-Jesus-like.
There are clues. She first called out to him with the words “Son of David.” This is a term hallowed by use in the ancient Hebrew scriptures, always referring to the Messiah. She is a Canaanite, and they did not believe in any Messiah-to-come, especially not one that would descend from David. Yet this woman, against her whole background, seems to have belief in Jesus as Messiah.
She calls him “Lord.” In Matthew’s Gospel this is an explicit admission that Jesus and God are one. Going just on her language, this is proof that she believed in him as the Savior.
Surely he sensed this.
But Israel and the Canaanites had long been in strife. How could “they” with their strange gods produce a woman who believes in the one God and in Jesus as the Christ? Is it possible that Jesus was drawing her out, teasing her in order to strengthen her belief?
Perhaps he was quoting the word “dogs” as a reference to names the two peoples called each other. Something like this: “My people of Israel believe in the one God and your people do not. How can I give their food to you ‘dogs,’ as we call you?”
The woman’s quick wit provides a wonderful, humble, bantering response that wins the day. “Even dogs eat scraps that fall from their master’s table.” It is a riposte, a parry, a counter-thrust, and Jesus loves it. She is saying, “It does not matter what a person’s status is as long as they believe. And I do believe.”
I’ll bet Jesus smiled a great smile as he told her how great her faith was. Maybe he laughed at her fast repartee. And of course he gladly gave her what she asked; he cured her daughter.
Doesn’t Christ’s Holy Spirit smile within you and me when we ask for what we need? When we let nothing stand in the way, like our own origins, our status in life, our sins, and maybe even our rejection by others?
Let us approach Communion and hold out our hands and say in effect, “Son of David, have pity on me.” This is a paraphrase of the Canaanite woman. Our response out loud is “Amen,” which means “I do believe,” like the woman. Let us mean it this Sunday.