A Reflection on the Readings for August 20, 2023 — The 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus as far away from Jerusalem as he’s ever been, at least when you look to his travels that are recorded in the four Gospels. With his disciples, Jesus had walked from Gennesaret to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a journey of about 35 miles that would’ve taken them 11 or 12 hours at the least. Obviously, Jesus and his disciples were no strangers to traveling by foot, but this journey stands out.

What also stands out is that this brief Gospel reading of seven verses covers the entirety of Jesus’ time in the region of Tyre and Sidon. The very next line in Matthew is “And Jesus moved on from there and passed along the sea of Galilee.” Clearly our Lord was very purposeful in making this trip, almost as if he had an appointment with the Canaanite woman, which makes his seeming resistance to her pleas all the more puzzling.

In Mark’s telling of this story, we hear that when Jesus arrived there, “He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it, but he could not escape notice.” Jesus, who says he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, has left Israel entirely and entered the pagan lands of the Phoenicians and Canaanites, people who weren’t even part of the house of Israel, let alone its lost sheep. Yet even there he could not escape notice. The fact that Jesus and his ministry and identity were known to people of this far-off pagan city is borne out in the way the Canaanite woman addresses him – “Lord, Son of David.”

While Jesus performed almost all of his ministry within the borders of the house of Israel, he was a beacon that attracted people from far and wide, Jews and non-Jews alike. In the 3rd chapter of Mark, in the early days of Jesus’ public ministry, we’re told “A large number of people followed from Galilee and from Judea. Hearing what he was doing, a large number of people came to him also from Jerusalem, from Idumea, from beyond the Jordan, and from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon.

All these varied people heard the voice of Jesus and witnessed him healing the sick and casting out demons. Perhaps our Canaanite woman was among those who traveled a great distance to see our Lord and thus later, in her hour of great need, knew in her very core that Jesus could help her daughter. That’s the source of the great faith Jesus speaks of as he heals her daughter.

Perhaps Jesus traveled all that way not only to accomplish the miraculous and compassionate healing of the possessed young girl as a tangible fruit of what true faith can do, but also to impart a lesson to the disciples and to us. The woman acknowledges Jesus as Lord and begs him to heal her daughter, but Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Was he ignoring the woman because he didn’t want to help her, or was his silence rather intended to evoke a response from his disciples?

Just days ago, these disciples beheld Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm, to which they responded “Truly you are the Son of God.” When the boat landed at Gennesaret, “… the men of that place recognized him, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought to him all those who were sick and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak, and as many as touched it were healed.” The disciples witnessed those healings.

It has been but a day’s journey since all these things transpired, and it’s not a stretch to think the disciples spent their walking time that day talking with one another in wonderment at what they’ve experienced with Jesus. Yet here they are, with their first opportunity to apply what they’ve learned from Jesus, to participate in his compassion, and what do they do? They tell Jesus “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” Really?

Maybe part of their response was a hangover from what happened right before they left Gennesaret. The Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem, who doubtless had witnessed the healings Jesus performed there, chose in their hardness of heart to respond with legalistic criticism rather than faith. “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash their hands when they eat a meal.” After what you’ve seen and heard, this is where you want to go? Really?

The Scribes and Pharisees plant their flag on teaching the precepts of men as doctrine, all part of a complex and exacting system of rules and regulations they have erected over what even they would acknowledge as the greatest commandment — You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Not much in there about hand washing, as Jesus’ rebuke of them makes clear.

Despite their daily contact with the compassionate and merciful Jesus, the disciples’ ingrained way of thinking along black and white, rules-based lines led them to revert to an unfortunate “Us vs. Them” mindset, essentially judging the Canaanite woman as a troublesome outsider who should be rejected rather than a neighbor they should love as they love themselves. Yes, the Scribes and Pharisees appear to be the most wedded to this mindset, but the disciples show us that even those who have experienced Jesus are not immune from that way of thinking, either.

Jesus basically ignores the disciples’ “send her away” complaint in order to restate his mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The disciples don’t respond to that, but the woman does: She responds by doing Jesus homage and simply saying, “Lord, help me.” In doing so, she becomes one of those foretold by God through Isaiah in the first reading, a foreigner who joins herself to the Lord and who is welcomed into his house, a house of prayer for all peoples.

In that light, Jesus’ next words to her are not an insult, but rather a gentle probe to see if she understands the invitation. When he says “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,” there are a couple of things at work there.

The word Jesus uses for “dog” in his response was used to refer to a household pet, a puppy who is allowed among the family, as opposed to the word people of that time would use to insult someone as a dog, which was more like a mongrel or cur, a dangerous street dog to be avoided. Jesus has already opened the door to the sense that this foreigner is actually already within the household.

In her response, the woman uses the same word Jesus did, and in doing so demonstrates she gets it. She acknowledges the gifts were first given to the house of Israel, but asserts her understanding that the abundance of those gifts will spill over to those who seek them, in the same way a puppy knows that coming to the table will yield the nourishment they seek. Even the scraps of those abundant gifts will satisfy.

God established the people of Israel, his chosen people, to be a light to the nations and to bring them all to his house of prayer. They were to be his special possession and a priestly people, so when Jesus says he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he is acknowledging their primacy in God’s plan and expressing a desire for that plan to have come to fruition completely, but not foreclosing the role of others in that plan.

That both/and sensibility in the first reading is something that St. Paul grasps when he says today of his mission to the Gentiles, “I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

In journeying to the region of Tyre and Sidon and healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter, Jesus brings the apostles and us along to open our eyes to his limitless love and mercy. When he saved Peter from sinking into the sea last week, Jesus called this apparent insider “O you of little faith,” and today he says of the apparent outsider, “O woman, great is your faith!

Whenever we approach the Lord’s altar at Mass to receive the ultimate Sacrament of Jesus’ limitless love and mercy, may we accept God’s grace to cast aside any preconceived notions of our own worthiness, or the unworthiness of others, and instead surrender ourselves in humility and thanksgiving to the God who sees, knows, and loves the hearts of us all.

Image: Christ with the Canaanite Woman and Her Daughter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1909. Public Domain

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Deacon Steve O’Neill was ordained for service to the Archdiocese of Washington in June 2013 and serves at St. Andrew Apostle in suburban Maryland.  After four years in the Marine Corps and three years at the University of Maryland (where met Traci, now his wife of 30+ years, and earned a degree in English), he has worked as an analyst with the Federal government.  Deacon Steve and Traci have two sons and two daughters and three grandchildren.

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