Great and Persevering Faith, 18th Wednesday (I), August 5, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Church of the Holy Family, Manhattan
Wednesday of the 18th Week of Ordinary Time, Year I
Dedication of St. Mary Major Basilica
August 5, 2015
Numb 13:1-2.25-14.1.26-29.34-35, Ps 106, Mt 15:21-28


The homily was not recorded. The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • In today’s readings we see a large contrast between faith and the lack of it, which helps us to take an honest look at the quality of our own faith.
  • In the first reading, God tells the Israelites that he is planning to give them the land of Canaan, the land that he had given to Abraham five centuries earlier. But they didn’t have faith in his words, even after witnessing all his miracles in setting them free from the Egyptians. They said that their potential opponents were like giants and they were like grasshoppers. Even with God on their side, they didn’t feel up to the task because they really didn’t believe that the Lord who had freed them from the Egyptians could fulfill his promises about the promised land. What would be a race of giants in comparison with the one, true God, who had shown himself far more powerful than all of Pharoah’s armies and his chariots and his charioteers?
  • We see a huge contrast to this doubt in the Gospel. This woman, culturally, was a grasshopper and Jesus and his apostles seem at first glance to have treated her in that way, but it never dissuaded her from acting out of love for her daughter. Jesus tested her — similar to the way he tested the apostles’ faith in the storm on the Sea as we heard yesterday — by treating her in this way so that she would grow in faith to become a giant. It’s one of the most powerful scenes, in my opinion, in all of the Gospels and leads to Jesus’ giving her one of his greatest compliments:  “Woman, great is your faith!” Let’s enter into the scene so that we can learn how our faith can grow to be more like hers. There were three essential steps in Jesus’ boot camp experience of faithful perseverance.
  • 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 often 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. Jesus didn’t seem to care very much about the non-Jews — so it would have been easy to think — 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 seemed to rebuff her a third time, saying, “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. She’s no more than a grasshopper among giants. But she was saying that Jesus was Lord, was Good Shepherd, even of the little chihuahuas and grasshoppers, 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.
  • The allusion to Mary at the Annunciation is a good link for today’s Feast of the Dedication of St. Mary Major Basilica. We celebrate the feast of the Dedication of St. Mary Major Basilica on August 5 because, prior to the building of this great Basilica to Mary, tradition says there was a simpler Church dedicated to her as a result of a miracle of snow falling on August 5 at that section of the Esquiline Hill. Snow falls in Rome once a generation and that it would fall in the heart of a typical hot and humid Roman summer is unheard of, but fall on August 5 it did, the night after the Blessed Virgin appeared in dreams to a nobleman named John and to Pope Liberius saying that she wanted them to collaborate in building a church on the place she would indicate. Seeing the snow, legend has it, Pope Liberius traced out the boundaries of the new Church. Eventually, nearly 80 years later, after the Council of Ephesus, Pope Sixtus III and his Archdeacon, the future Pope St. Leo the Great, built on the same site a much larger Church dedicated to Mary’s maternity, what we now call the Basilica of St. Mary Major. The Basilica houses the famous, miraculous image of Mary “Salus Populi Romani,” the “salvation of the Roman people,” not only because it was through her, the theotokos, that the Savior was born into the world, but it has been through her prayers that the Romans have been saved many times over from fires, from bombings and from all types of physical and spiritual disasters. The Romans, just like Roman Catholics and other Christians throughout the world, know that Mary prays for us with the persistent faith of a mother, much of like what we see in today’s Gospel. She never gives up when we, her daughters and sons, are possessed by demons or by sinful behavior. She never ceases to intercede when we’re in need. If there’s any woman whose faith was great it was hers, and her faith has been repeatedly tested not only at Jesus’ miraculous and virginal conception, during his life, death and resurrection on earth, but after his ascension, as she has accompanied the sons and daughters Jesus entrusted to her on Calvary. Today is a day for us to ponder her persevering faith and ask for the grace of a faith like hers. Mary is praying for us now that we might receive a far greater miracle than a summer snowfall. She wants more than to have white snow fall on the ground but to have our hearts become as white and pure as snow through the practice of faith. She wants to assist us from above not to build a Church on a hill but to build through faith a shrine to receive her Son and experience his triumph.
  • And she’s interceding for that to happen at Mass, which is meant to imitate, to some degree, today’s Gospel scene. 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. This is the food that makes grasshoppers giants. This is the food that Salus Populi Romani continues to pray every day that we receive in such a way that her Eucharistic Son will be able to say to us from within, “Great is your faith!”

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
NM 13:1-2, 25–14:1, 26A-29A, 34-35

The LORD said to Moses [in the desert of Paran,]
“Send men to reconnoiter the land of Canaan,
which I am giving the children of Israel.
You shall send one man from each ancestral tribe,
all of them princes.”After reconnoitering the land for forty days they returned,
met Moses and Aaron and the whole congregation of the children of Israel
in the desert of Paran at Kadesh,
made a report to them all,
and showed the fruit of the country
to the whole congregation.
They told Moses: “We went into the land to which you sent us.
It does indeed flow with milk and honey, and here is its fruit.
However, the people who are living in the land are fierce,
and the towns are fortified and very strong.
Besides, we saw descendants of the Anakim there.
Amalekites live in the region of the Negeb;
Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites dwell in the highlands,
and Canaanites along the seacoast and the banks of the Jordan.”Caleb, however, to quiet the people toward Moses, said,
“We ought to go up and seize the land, for we can certainly do so.”
But the men who had gone up with him said,
“We cannot attack these people; they are too strong for us.”
So they spread discouraging reports among the children of Israel
about the land they had scouted, saying,
“The land that we explored is a country that consumes its inhabitants.
And all the people we saw there are huge, veritable giants
(the Anakim were a race of giants);
we felt like mere grasshoppers, and so we must have seemed to them.”At this, the whole community broke out with loud cries,
and even in the night the people wailed.The LORD said to Moses and Aaron:
“How long will this wicked assembly grumble against me?
I have heard the grumblings of the children of Israel against me.
Tell them: By my life, says the LORD,
I will do to you just what I have heard you say.
Here in the desert shall your dead bodies fall.
Forty days you spent in scouting the land;
forty years shall you suffer for your crimes:
one year for each day.
Thus you will realize what it means to oppose me.
I, the LORD, have sworn to do this
to all this wicked assembly that conspired against me:
here in the desert they shall die to the last man.”

Responsorial Psalm
PS 106:6-7AB, 13-14, 21-22, 23

R. (4a) Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
We have sinned, we and our fathers;
we have committed crimes; we have done wrong.
Our fathers in Egypt
considered not your wonders.
R. Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
But soon they forgot his works;
they waited not for his counsel.
They gave way to craving in the desert
and tempted God in the wilderness.
R. Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
They forgot the God who had saved them,
who had done great deeds in Egypt,
Wondrous deeds in the land of Ham,
terrible things at the Red Sea.
R. Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
Then he spoke of exterminating them,
but Moses, his chosen one,
Withstood him in the breach
to turn back his destructive wrath.
R. Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.

MT 15: 21-28

At that time Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
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 he did not say a word in answer to her.
His 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 him 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 her daughter was healed from that hour.