Persevering in Petition for Mercy, 18th Wednesday (II), August 3, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Wednesday of the 18th Week of Ordinary Time, Year II
Votive Mass of the Mercy of God
August 3, 2016
Jer 31:1-7, Jer 31:10-13 , Mt 15:21-28


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • During this Jubilee of Mercy, one of the most important lessons to learn is that God’s mercy is always a great gift to which we have no right. If we’re going to appreciate it accurately and enough, we need to realize that every exercise of mercy from God isn’t given to us out of justice or merit but out of his fatherly goodness. And therefore we need to learn how not to give up in asking for it, offended if he seems to be slow in giving it. Because he is faithful to the Covenant he has made, and, as Mary says in her Magnificat, remembers his mercy from generation to generation, we need to continue imploring his goodness to give us his mercy without losing heart. We see these lessons in today’s readings.
  • In the first reading and the Psalm, both taken from the 31st Chapter of the Prophet Jeremiah, we see Jeremiah’s words in the phase of “rebuilding” and “planting” during the Babylonian exile after the “tearing down” and “uprooting” that preceded it. After the Prophet had announced the impending catastrophe and failed to bring his people to conversion, after the chastisement had begun, God had him preach a message of hope and mercy. God says through him today, “The people that escaped the sword have found favor in the desert.…  With age-old love I have loved you; so I have kept my mercy toward you. Again I will restore you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin Israel.” Then he announces what will ensue: “Carrying your festive tambourines, you shall go forth dancing with the merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyards [and] …  those who plant them shall enjoy the fruits. Yes, a day will come when the watchmen will call out … ‘Rise up, let us go to Zion, to the Lord, our God.’ … He who scattered Israel, now gathers them together, he guards them as a shepherd his flock.” The Lord would keep his mercy toward them, he would gather them, and shepherd and guard them, and after the chastisement they would now want to go up to pray in Zion rather than neglect that gift, they would rejoice in their faith rather than take it for granted, they would maintain their “virginity” — giving themselves first to God — rather than squander it with false gods.
  • But they needed to be taught how to long for that mercy after a long time when they convinced themselves that it would always be present and they could take advantage of it. There’s a crash course in today’s Gospel about how it is always a gift, but that when we persevere in asking for it, God, consistent with his merciful nature, rejoices to share it. Jesus would like us all to seek his mercy, for ourselves and for others, with the faithful perseverance of the woman in today’s Gospel. Jesus took her on a brutal four-step journey to test her faith and help her open herself up to the greatness of the mercy he would extend.
  • The first part of the 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 so that she’s grasp the gift to be given. 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 and others 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 line of 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.” (That was true; he would eventually send the Church with light to the nations, to go out after all the lost Gentiles). This pagan woman was a have-not. Jesus was seeming to say he didn’t 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.  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. She had succeeded in obtaining for her loved one the mercy that Jesus had seemed three times to refuse!
  • We are called throughout this Jubilee of Mercy to implore God’s gift with the same insistence for ourselves and for others, not to take no for an answer, not to think he doesn’t want to extend that gift, but to do so until our family members, our friends, even ourselves are no longer afflicted by demons, no longer tempted against the God and tormented by sins. She is a model for us of the prayer of intercession for God’s mercy to rain down on all the categories of people we pray for in the Novena of Divine Mercy.
  • And the great way we ask for that gift is in the Mass. Today’s Gospel is like a liturgy. We begin by crying out to the Lord for mercy in the penitential rite. We ask the intercession of “the Blessed Virgin Mary, all the angels and saints and … our brothers and sisters to pray for us to the Lord,” like the woman begged the apostles. We go prostrate before the Lord begging for his help in the petitions, on our knees in the Eucharistic Prayer. And then we open ourselves up to whatever comes from his table, which, even if it is just a crumb, is the gift of God himself, a gift that St. Thomas writes in his famous sequence for Corpus Christi, is for the children not fit for the dogs, the very nourishment that restores us in our divine filiation. This is the great petition for mercy, where the Good Shepherd comes to forgive us, to gather us, and to shepherd us as a shepherd separates his flock!

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1 JER 31:1-7

At that time, says the LORD,
I will be the God of all the tribes of Israel,
and they shall be my people.
Thus says the LORD:
The people that escaped the sword
have found favor in the desert.
As Israel comes forward to be given his rest,
the LORD appears to him from afar:
With age-old love I have loved you;
so I have kept my mercy toward you.
Again I will restore you, and you shall be rebuilt,
O virgin Israel;
Carrying your festive tambourines,
you shall go forth dancing with the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
those who plant them shall enjoy the fruits.
Yes, a day will come when the watchmen
will call out on Mount Ephraim:
“Rise up, let us go to Zion,
to the LORD, our God.”For thus says the LORD:
Shout with joy for Jacob,
exult at the head of the nations;
proclaim your praise and say:
The LORD has delivered his people,
the remnant of Israel.

Responsorial Psalm JER 31:10, 11-12AB, 13

R. (see 10d) The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
proclaim it on distant isles, and say:
He who scattered Israel, now gathers them together,
he guards them as a shepherd his flock.
R. The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
The LORD shall ransom Jacob,
he shall redeem him from the hand of his conqueror.
Shouting, they shall mount the heights of Zion,
they shall come streaming to the LORD’s blessings.
R. The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
Then the virgins shall make merry and dance,
and young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into joy.
I will console and gladden them after their sorrows.
R. The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.

Alleluia LK 7:16

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
A great prophet has arisen in our midst
and God has visited his people.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel 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.