20th Sunday in Ordinary Time-A
Isaiah 56: 1, 6-7
Romans 11: 13-15, 29-32
Matthew 15: 21-28
A man rushed to the supermarket on a Saturday to pick up a few snack items. The baseball game was going to be on television, and he planned to watch it with his family.
The store was loaded with shoppers. And as he headed for the 12-items-or-less express lane – the only one that did not have a long line – a woman cut him off and slipped into that check-out line, pushing a shopping cart piled high with groceries. The man was fuming.
The cashier motioned for the woman to come forward. Then he looked at her overflowing cart and asked ever so cleverly: “So madam, which twelve items in your cart would you like to purchase today?”
That story reminds me a bit of the spirit of today’s Gospel about the woman who was clever enough and determined enough to have her request answered by Jesus. Let’s look at this Gospel together.
This is the only occasion that we know of in Jesus’ public life when He was outside of Jewish territory.
There was no place in Palestine where He could escape the crowds. He wanted to prepare His disciples for His approaching passion and death. So He went to the Gentile districts of Tyre and Sidon because no self-respecting Jew would follow Him there. But even in this foreign territory He still encountered the demands of human need.
There was a woman who came to Jesus, asking: “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” And Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
His disciples said to Him: “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” They saw her as a nuisance. They wanted Jesus to grant her request simply to get rid of her. Their motives were not at all out of compassion for her.
But for Jesus there was a problem. He said: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” His mission was to begin with the Jews. And here was a Gentile woman crying for mercy. There was only one thing for Jesus to do: He must awaken true faith in her heart.
The woman then came and did Jesus homage, saying: “Lord, help me.”
So Jesus says to her: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
To call a person “a dog” is ordinarily taken as an insult. But the tone and the look with which something is said can make all the difference.
We can call a friend “an old devil” or “a rascal” with a smile and a tone that can take all the sting out of it and fill it with affection. I picture Jesus saying this to the woman with a smile on His face and with compassion in His eyes.
And the Greek word for “dogs” here does not mean the diseased and savage street dogs who ate from the garbage heaps. But rather the household pets that would stay at your feet and climb into your lap.
So the woman, with her clever wit, replies: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
And Jesus’ eyes lit up with joy: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at that very hour.
What do we learn from this woman and her encounter with Jesus?
First and foremost, she had love. She made the misery of her child her own. Although a pagan, she would approach this stranger, Jesus, and would even accept His silence and His apparent rebuffs out of love for her daughter. And there is nothing stronger and nothing nearer to God than love that comes from the heart.
She also had faith. And it was a faith that grew through her contact with Jesus. She began by calling Him “Son of David,” a popular political title. She ended by calling Jesus “Lord.” Jesus wanted her to see that “a request to a popular healer” must be turned into “a prayer to the living God.” And she did.
She began by following Jesus. She ended on her knees before Jesus. She began with a request. She ended with a prayer. We learn that we must first come to Jesus with the worship of His majesty in our prayer. And then with the statement of our needs in our request.
And this woman had the gift of cheerfulness. She had her troubles and yet she could still smile. God loves the cheerful person, in whose eyes there is always the light of hope.
This loving, faith-filled and cheerfully-clever woman did indeed move through the express line to faith in Jesus and she received from Him an answer to her shopping cart of prayers.
This Gospel invites us to learn a lesson about prayer from her and her encounter with Jesus.