There is a huge mismatch between the Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus Christ and the Apostles in the Gospel for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A — and St. Paul reminds us that we should feel the full force of it today when we each approach Jesus Christ.
The important clues are all there at the very beginning of the Gospel story — in the “who, what, where, when, why?”
Matthew does a great job at news reporting with this story. Right away, he answers the Five Ws of journalism:
Who? A Canaanite woman, a pagan, a Gentile, approaches Jesus, whom she identifies as the heir to the high promises of Judaism by calling him “Lord, Son of David!”
What? Her daughter is tormented by a demon; an intolerable situation for the girl and the sort of problem that makes it impossible for a parent to have any other priority besides finding relief.
Where? In the region of Tyre and Sidon, the furthest afield Jesus goes in the Gospels from the centers of Jewish life — past even Galilee, the Timbuktu of the Holy Land, far from Jerusalem.
When? This Gospel comes in the lead-up to the climactic moments of the entire Gospel story, where questions about who Jesus is are at their most tense. Jesus has multiplied the loaves; he has walked on the water; he is edging ever closer to the moment he will ask, “Who do you say I am?” and then redefine everything the apostles thought about him and his mission — the pivotal “Mark’s Midpoint” in Jesus Christ’s Extraordinary Story.
And as to the question Why?, this tale is told so that everyone in the story, and we who hear it, can level-set our understanding of who Jesus is and who we are.
And who is Jesus and who are we? He is the Messiah Lord, commander of the forces of the supernatural; and we are, well … dogs.
When the pagan woman interrupts Jesus, imagine a janitor butting into the CEO’s conversation outside the boardroom.
That’s how the Apostles and Jesus himself seem to treat her, at first. She “keeps calling out” to Jesus “Have pity on me!”, and the Apostles close ranks to shut out her annoying interruptions, saying “Send her away.” Jesus’s closes companions care nothing for her; they simply want her gone — and when Jesus turns to her, he seems to share their opinion.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says, and think about that for a second. He’s saying, “I am the Good Shepherd, but not for you.” It’s as if he is composing a special version of the 23rd Psalm, just for her: “The Lord is not your shepherd; You shall always want.”
Then when she persists, he makes it worse, saying “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Dogs in the Old Testament were scavenger beasts that snarled, howled and had to be shooed away only to return, with annoying persistence, later.
When she is called a dog, the Canaanite woman says something to Jesus that the Church today and each of us needs to learn to say.
“Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table,” she says. Look how that subtly changes each of those Five Ws:
Who? This Gentile makes the Lord of Israel her master, too.
What? This Gentile makes the grace of the Chosen People her own.
When? Earlier than the one Apostle who answers later, she answers “Who do you say that I am?” correctly, making him the “Son of David,” “master” and helper of Gentiles — the Lord-Messiah, Savior of the whole world.
Where? She relocates her story from her Podunk, Palestine, locale to the heavenly Holy Mountain Isaiah writes about in our First Reading, where “foreigners … join themselves to the Lord” in “a house of prayer for all peoples.”
And in answer to the question Why she should get anything from the Lord, she appeals to nothing but grace. She doesn’t deserve anything; not as a member of the Chosen Race, not as a person of consequence in society, not as anything greater than a scavenger for grace. She deserves nothing and asks for nothing; she only wants mercy for someone else.
Thus, the Canaanite woman shares the vision of St. Paul.
Flip back in the missal to the Second Reading from Romans last weekend. On the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Paul praises the Israelites, saying: “theirs [is] the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ.”
The Jewish people are God’s darlings, the apple of his eye and the recipient of all of his promises — but all of it culminates in Jesus Christ.
Before Mark’s Midpoint, the Apostles saw all those things except for the part about Jesus. But the Canaanite woman sees it all. She truly sees that the Jewish people are her betters in the Spiritual Order and that Jesus Christ is the highest expression of Judaism, capable of saving her.
Then, this Sunday, Paul says that the Jewish people remain great, remain God’s Chosen People, for all time, “For the gifts of the call of God are irrevocable” — but that the new way to enter the Kingdom is obedience, not ethnicity. That creates an opening for us, the Gentiles, in the final phase of God’s plan: “The reconciliation of the world.”
The way in for us is humility and obedience, which the Canaanite woman has in abundance, being willing to be called a dog and beg for scraps.
But if God calling her a dog sounds offensive, there is a way to read the Gospel that is less harsh.
Commentators point out that the words used here for “dogs” by Jesus and the woman are not as harsh as they appear. Jerome even points out that the woman calls herself a “whelp,” or puppy.
You could see this as Jesus playfully challenging her boldness while acknowledging the rightness of her cause. It’s like the CEO saying to the janitor, “What, you think I should care about you just because you work here?” and the janitor answering, “Hey, at least you can throw me a bone.”
This Canaanite woman is just the kind of person Jesus likes: Playful, persistent, dedicated to her family, and open to him.
She has a faith that is open-minded with no preconditions — which is the strongest faith. She has a hope that sees Jesus as not just a source of help, but as her only source of help, which is a truer and deeper hope. And she has the deepest kind of love, a love of God’s will. As Protestant commentator William Barclay points out, “She begins by following him and winds up on her knees before him.”
That should be us.
It is hugely significant that we hear this reading at Mass, where we Gentile dogs come begging at the altar of God and are given, literally, scraps from his table.
But we find, like this Canaanite woman did, that the scraps we get change everything, because they are the gifts of the Lord himself.