20TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – AUGUST 18, 2002 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The remark of Jesus recorded in today’s Gospel-passage does not fit very well with common perceptions of him as gentle and ever-welcoming. To the Gentile Canaanite woman, he says sharply: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” It was not uncommon, of course, for Jews to refer to Gentiles as dogs; the Middle East’s habit of denigration of the other has a long history. In fact, it is in that context that we must place this exchange between Jesus and the woman. We have to imagine it as a kind of verbal jousting, the sort of thing that you might hear in a market-place. And the woman gives as good as she gets: “Please, Lord,” she replies, “even dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table.” It has to be said that she has the better of the argument, and Jesus praises her for her retort and for the faith that underlies it: “O woman, great is your faith.” She is the only person in Matthew’s Gospel who is said to be of great faith. Remember how, last week, Jesus rebuked Peter for his “little faith”.
The story was handed down in the tradition, and by the time Matthew’s Gospel was being written down, it had taken on a symbolic significance as well. The first Gospel is the most Jewish of all the Gospels, the one that takes the most pains to show Jesus against the backdrop of the history of Israel, as the new Moses, bringing the new Law that fulfills the old. But it is also the Gospel that begins with the coming of the Gentile Magi to offer worship to a Messiah that the Jewish leaders do not themselves recognize; and this Gospel ends with the clearest and broadest missionary mandate: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations.”
That opening of Israel’s fulfilment in Christ to the other nations was not, however, something that was easily accomplished. It took time, struggle, and great thought until the early Church could agree that Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to become Christians. There were people who did not think that Gentiles should be welcomed into the Church. In light of this, the story of the Canaanite woman takes on symbolic significance. Jesus affirms what was known about his own ministry: that he was sent to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman represents the Gentile nations begging that he would help them also. The objection to their integration is articulated in the sharp dismissive words about “dogs,” and the woman’s retort becomes a confession of faith that is rewarded by Jesus. By the time Matthew’s Gospel is being written, in fact, Gentiles were already being received and welcomed into the Church, and this passage must have been one of their favorites.
In this context, however, one cannot but note that it would not be long before the Church became almost wholly Gentile in membership, and the tendency to use words like “dogs” and worse epithets of Jews became not uncommon among Christians. It is providential that on the day we hear this Gospel, we also hear St. Paul reminding the Romans that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” The passage from which these words are taken is full of Paul’s efforts to comprehend what it meant that most of his own people did not recognize the Messiah, and what this failure might mean in the plan of God. Today we hear that God’s love for his people remains ineradicable; that the Jewish people are still precious in his eyes; and that he continues to call them. These words ought to have been enshrined on the walls of churches and the hearts of Christians; that they so often were not is one of the great shames of our Christian history.
It has proven hard for the Church to be genuinely catholic, that is, intent upon the redemptive integration of all peoples under Christ and in the Holy Spirit. There is perhaps no greater obligation that we Christians face today and, as is likely, in the decades ahead than that of giving a living demonstration that before God and in Christ all of the great differences that we human beings have set up between peoples, especially those of race and ethnic groups, have been relativized, and that it is possible at once to celebrate particularity and to embrace a universal, a catholic, integration. It is long since time that we took up this great challenge with something of the faith of the Canaanite woman.