20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Fr. Victor Feltes
A Canaanite woman calls out to Jesus, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” And Jesus, surprisingly, ignores her. She persists and his annoyed disciples complain: “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
Jesus replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This is similar to what Jesus said in this gospel five chapters earlier, when sending out his apostles to proclaim “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Jesus had instructed them, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But now Jesus is in pagan territory meeting this non-Jewish woman.
She approaches him and does him homage, pleading, “Lord, help me.” Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” “Please, Lord,” she parries, “for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus praises her great faith and grants her request, and the woman’s daughter is healed that very hour.
Many people draw mistaken conclusions from this episode. If Jesus initially ignores her and then likens her people to “dogs,” must this mean that Jesus is prejudiced or racist? Did Love Incarnate, through whom all persons were created, lack love for this woman, her suffering child, and their people? That is not the Jesus whom we know.
Did the Incarnate Word forget his mission until he met this woman and realized, “Oh, maybe I’m supposed to save the Gentiles too.” No – as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal.” (CCC 474) Jesus knew who he was and what he had come to do — to bring salvation to the whole world, to the Jews first and then the Gentiles. So why does Jesus resist the Canaanite woman, ignoring her, then rebuffing her, and saying that thing about the dogs? He did it for our good and her greater glory.
The Book of Proverbs says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.” (Proverbs 17:3) The purity of precious medals is proven by melting them. Our Lord likewise tests hearts. “But why,” one might ask, “would an all-knowing God bother to test anyone? It doesn’t tell him anything he doesn’t know already.” The testing of precious metals and the testing of hearts not only reveals to everyone what is inside them, but purifies and improves them. In the intense heat of a crucible or a furnace worthless dross separates off or burns away. Our Lord sometimes allows us to face adversity and challenges to purify and improve us. He was doing the same with her.
Though Jesus and this Canaanite woman were strangers, he knew her. Jesus knows all of us through and through. (John 2:24) He is not trying to insult her and make her walk away (that is why Jesus uses here a diminutive Greek word for dogs better translated as “little dogs, puppies, or doggies.”) He is playing hard to get in order to elicit something greater in her. St. Augustine wrote: “She was ignored, not that mercy might be denied but that desire might be enkindled; [and] not only that desire might be enkindled but… that humility might be praised.”
Jesus appears to have been testing the apostles as well. Why was their request of Jesus to “send her away,” rather than compassionately interceding for her, saying, “Lord, might something be done for her daughter?” In the end, we and the apostles are shown through her the wideness of Jesus’ mercy and love, and that persistence and humility in prayer and in life are praiseworthy and lead to our greater blessedness in Christ.