Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 17, 2014
Is 56:1.6-7, Ps 67, Rom 11:13-15.29-32, Mt 15:21-28
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click here:
The following points were attempted in this homily:
In today’s Gospel Jesus gives a pagan woman the greatest compliment he could give to anyone, the type of tribute he wanted to give to every one of his fellow Jesus, the accolade he wants to give every Christian, the salutation he wants to give to people from all nations (first reading and psalm), the commendation he wants to say about each of us now and when we meet him face-to-face: “Great is your faith!” Jesus’ praise was not cheap. It was a result of the way the woman responded to the terrible problem of having a possessed daughter and all the problems that likely led to her possession and followed it. It was the result of a dialogue with Jesus that would have tested her faith to the limit. It was the end result of a process of growth in faith that culminated with Jesus’ amazed acclaim. In today’s Gospel we are able to enter the scene and learn from this Syro-Phoenician woman how we, too, can grow in faith so that our faith may genuinely become great.
The question we ought to ask at the outset, however, is whether our faith is great or small or just average right now. Are we living by faith? Is our faith the most important aspect of our self-identity? If Jesus were to come, would he compliment us like he praised the Canaanite woman or would he say of us what he often said of some of his closest followers at the beginning: “O you of little faith!”? Jesus wondered aloud once whether we he returned whether he would find faith on earth at all (Lk 18:8). He said it at the end of a parable about the importune woman who bothered an unjust judge so much that he finally did right by her, suggesting that if he finds faith, he’ll find us persevering like that bothersome widow or this Canaanite mother. Do we have that type of resolve that flows from faith and helps it to grow?
Pope Francis is now in Korea and yesterday he gave a powerful homily as he beatified 124 heroic Korean Catholics in a huge Mass at Seoul’s Gwanghawun Gate. Pope Francis said, “Soon after the first seeds of faith were planted in this land, the martyrs and the Christian community had to choose between following Jesus or the world. They had heard the Lord’s warning that the world would hate them because of him (Jn 17:14); they knew the cost of discipleship. For many, this meant persecution, and later flight to the mountains, where they formed Catholic villages. They were willing to make great sacrifices and let themselves be stripped of whatever kept them from Christ – possessions and land, prestige and honor – for they knew that Christ alone was their true treasure.” And then he made an application to all of us: “So often we today can find our faith challenged by the world, and in countless ways we are asked to compromise our faith, to water down the radical demands of the Gospel and to conform to the spirit of this age. Yet the martyrs call out to us to put Christ first and to see all else in this world in relation to him and his eternal Kingdom. They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for.” What would we be willing to die for?
Hanging over my shoulder there’s a new sanctuary banner featuring the letter N in the Arabic language (a nun), which is the way that the fundamentalist Muslim group ISIS was marking the homes of Christians in Iraq, to signify they were followers of the Nazarene, Jesus. The occupants of those houses were given a deadline either to leave their home or convert to Islam. Many of the Christian occupants had lived in those homes their entire life. Their Christian families had lived there some for 1700 years. And they needed to make the choice between keeping their home or keeping their faith. Vast nultitudes of Christians refused to convert and needed to leave. Those who missed the deadline , and even some who made it, were mercilessly struck down. Eight year old girls were mutilated or sold in “marriage” to adults. Many have been decapitated and had their heads mounted in public places. Others have been crucified. Tends of thousands of people have needed to wander out into the desert — 80 year-olds, 90 year-olds, pregnant women, children, the seriously ill and more. I’ve put this banner up so that we may pray in solidarity with them as the whole Church in the US marks a special day of prayer, but I’ve also put it up here so that we may be inspired by their faith. Our Christian brothers and Sisters in Iraq and Syria are willing to die for the Lord. When given a choice between losing everything on earth and keeping their faith or apostasizing in order to try to maintain what they had, they’ve remained faithful. I’ve put up this banner to toughen all of us up in faith, because many of us have gotten soft, compromising our faith for little things as our Iraqi brothers and sisters won’t compromise it for everything.
One application of this I’d like to make is the request I’ve been making over the course of the last month to start praying Mass as a family, so that we can mutually begin helping each other to grow in faith. I thank the vast majority of you who have moved. But there are still a good number who haven’t moved. Some of the people have come to me with the reasons they don’t want to move: because they want to sit closer to the bathroom in case they need to use it, because they’re afraid that if they might fall if they’d sit up front, because they get a better breeze in the back when the doors are open. I’m sympathetic to the reasons, I truly am, but at the same time I want to point out that our Iraqi brothers sisters, including those who are sick, including those who are old, including those who have bladder problems, including those who would have every legitimate excuse in the book, are leaving their homes to go out into the desert for the faith, and some people are treating the request to move forward and sit as a family at Mass as if it’s marching them to Calvary. If Jesus were to come right now, what would he say to those who are still sitting in the back after several weeks of polite requests. Would he compliment people for “great faith” or would he be disappointed?
We all need to grow in faith and we see the various steps in that growth in today’s dramatic Gospel scene. There are three essential steps, each one of which was a greater one for the woman, and all of which she passed.
The first test happened when she went up to Jesus and called out, “Have pity on me Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” The fact that she used the language she did showed already how much she was prepared to do and to risk. Canaanites, especially those in Tyre, had nothing to do with Jews. They were considered enemies all the way back to the time of the Phoenicians who battled against David. For her to call Jesus “Son of David!” was almost an act of treason for the people of her region and for her to call him “Lord” was an act of apostasy against the region’s system of pagan worship. But as Jesus was coming into this pagan territory to get away from the intrigue of those seeking to entrap him, she was going out to meet him in what seems to be a divinely arranged encounter. She had almost certainly had heard about the Nazarene carpenter who had worked many exorcisms and other great miracles and she was maternal love was begging for him to do the same for her daughter.
What was Jesus’ response? Total silence. St. Matthew, an eyewitness, tells us, “But he did not say a word in answer to him.” It seems weird. It seems almost a cruel thing to do to a desperate mother. But Jesus, who almost certainly was prepared to work the exorcism, wanted to effectuate a far greater miracle on that day on behalf of the woman, on behalf of the disciples with him, and on behalf of all of us, and to do that, he needed to try her faith. For us, we, too, need to learn how to deal with God’s silence. We pray and we don’t seem to get a response. We pray again and it seems the door has remained shut. How we do handle it? Many of us give up, we stop praying, we think God doesn’t care, but what God is often doing in these circumstances is giving us a chance to learn how to pray perseveringly so that we may grow in faith to such a degree that we will always persevere in fidelity. Regardless, when Jesus responded to the woman with cold silence, perhaps even seeming to ignore her, the woman didn’t give up.
Her second attack was intercession. She ran up to the disciples and asked them to intervene. We can imagine her grabbing on their clothes and arms, raising her voice, begging their assistance. They disciples had had it. They approached Jesus and said, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” They were asking Jesus to work a miracle just to rid of the bothersome lady. Jesus refused their advances, too. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She was a have-not, and an insulted one at that. Jesus didn’t seem to care about the non-Jews and the disciples all wanted to get rid of her. She was truly persona non grata. It would have been easy for her to go away and wallow in self-pity. It would have been easy for her to call Jesus and the apostles hypocrites, heartless and other names. But she was not going to give up. She was now going to pass the second test and move on the third.
Having been rebuffed a second time, she ran up to Jesus fell down on her stomach before him — that’s what the Greek proskinesis means which is translated “did him homage” — and begged, simply, “Lord, help me!” “Help!” is one of the most poignant expressions that exist in any language and she was using it. But Jesus responded, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” We don’t know if Jesus said this with a wink of the eye or with a tone in the voice to soften it, but the text of what Jesus said was hugely insulting. In the ancient world, most dogs were stray, eating your trash, defecating at your front door, attacking kids when they were playing in the squares. To call someone a stray dog in contrast to children was about the most denigrating thing that could have been said. Many of us, if we had been called by Jesus something similar — like “cockroach” today — may have just stopped in our tracks and wept. Or we might have insisted that we have more dignity to be offended like that. This woman didn’t. Instead, she agreed with Jesus. “Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” She changed Jesus’ word “dog” into “little dog,” which could mean one of two things: that we’re dealing with puppies or chihuahuas; or the diminutive can also signify a “dear dog” or a pet. Regardless, what she was saying is that even the little house puppies eat the little crumbs that fall from the children’s table. She was essentially saying that, yes, she is an insignificant little dog barking incessantly. She knows she’s not worthy to receive what the children receive. But she was saying that Jesus was Lord, was Good Shepherd, even of the little chihuahuas, and even the littlest crumb of his mercy would be enough to work the exorcism of her daughter. Even if she was not a child in the home, even if she wasn’t human, she was at least like a little pet who had become a member of the family.
Jesus was moved by the woman’s persistence, by the woman’s great trust, by the woman’s even deep theological understanding, and so he proclaimed what had been revealed over the course of their dialogue: “O woman, great is your faith!” Her faith was not crumb-like in size. It wasn’t a mustard seed. It was much more, and faith like that can move mountains. Jesus then across the mountains worked the miracle the woman had been requesting: “Let it be done for you as you wish,” an echo of what his Mother had said in faith to the Archangel Gabriel. And St. Matthew tells us that the woman’s daughter was healed from that very instant.
This progression in faith is something that the Lord wants to happen to us in prayer, in life and at every Mass. I’ll focus just on the latter. At the beginning of every Mass Jesus comes out of his native place as we come out of ours to meet. It’s then that we cry out “Lord, have mercy!” We turn to him because we’ve succumbed to the wiles of the devil, because our family members have, because our fellow citizens have, because so many in the world have. Just like the double miracle in today’s Gospel happened with a possessed girl, that helped her mother to grow in faith, so we come at the beginning of Mass with all our own crises and problems, our own struggles, and beg for mercy. The second step is when Jesus reminds us of his primary mission on earth to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, as we hear the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament, the first reading and the psalm, that God gave to that household. That leads to the third moment when Jesus says “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” We say “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” But then we get ready for something far more than crumbs. Jesus gives us the greatest meal ever, entering into communion with us and helping us “change species,” becoming sons and daughters of God. We receive not tiny crumbs, but we receive God himself. Every Mass is meant to help us to grow in faith, as we go from contrition, through the gift of the Word of God, to the humility of the Centurion and the woman, to having all of us sit at God’s table as he then precedes to wait on us and give us himself despite our unworthiness.
Today at this Mass, we ask the Lord to strengthen our faith and that of our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world, so that we with them will be willing to die for it out of love for the One who died to save us. We thank him for throwing himself to us as our food, even though so often we take him for granted. And we ask him to give us the grace of holy perseverance in prayer, in the Christian life, in faith, so that the Lord may say of us today, tomorrow and at the day he comes for us, “Great is your faith” and give us a seat with the Korean martyrs, with St. Bernadette and with all those who have become great in faith at the eternal banquet of God’s children.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
IS 56:1, 6-7
Observe what is right, do what is just;
for my salvation is about to come,
my justice, about to be revealed.The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
ministering to him,
loving the name of the LORD,
and becoming his servants—
all who keep the sabbath free from profanation
and hold to my covenant,
them I will bring to my holy mountain
and make joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be acceptable on my altar,
for my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all peoples.
PS 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
May God have pity on us and bless us;
may he let his face shine upon us.
So may your way be known upon earth;
among all nations, your salvation.
R/ O God, let all the nations praise you!
May the nations be glad and exult
because you rule the peoples in equity;
the nations on the earth you guide.
R/ O God, let all the nations praise you!
May the peoples praise you, O God;
may all the peoples praise you!
May God bless us,
and may all the ends of the earth fear him!
R/ O God, let all the nations praise you!
ROM 11:13-15, 29-32
Brothers and sisters:
I am speaking to you Gentiles.
Inasmuch as I am the apostle 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?
For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.
Just as you once disobeyed God
but have now received mercy because of their disobedience,
so they have now disobeyed in order that,
by virtue of the mercy shown to you,
they too may now receive mercy.
For God delivered all to disobedience,
that he might have mercy upon all.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
Jesus’ disciples came and asked him,
“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
He said in reply,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
He said in reply,
“It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters.”
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
“O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.