Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman might, at first look, seem harsh. He turns her away as she pleads for her daughter. As the interaction continues, he uses a proverbial saying that would easily associate the woman’s heritage with that of a “dog.” In the end, Jesus hears her plea, healing her daughter as he tells her: “O woman, great is your faith!”
Two themes are woven into this interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. The first is faith. The Sunday Gospel passages for the past few weeks have emphasized the call to faith. Last week, we saw Jesus walking on water and inviting Peter to do the same. Distracted by the wind and the storm, Peter takes his focus off Jesus and begins to sink. Jesus then says to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” The week before, we celebrated the Transfiguration. The words of the Father, coming from the cloud, are a call to faith in Jesus: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased, listen to Him.”
This week, the persistent Canaanite woman demonstrates the greatness of her faith. The seemingly tough treatment of her by Jesus and the disciples serves only to highlight the depth and tenacity of her faith. She believes that Jesus has the ability to heal her daughter of the demons. She will not give up. Three times she pleads for her daughter and begs for mercy. Her faith prevails and her daughter is healed.
The second theme, related to the first, is that all nations will be invited to share the one faith in, with and of Jesus. The woman who comes to Jesus is a Canaanite. She is not a child of Israel, nor a sharer in God’s covenant with Israel. She is a gentile. Jesus’ disciples are Jews, as is Jesus himself. The faith of the Canaanite woman points to the time when all peoples will be invited to share life in the new covenant established through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.
The promised hope that this will one day occur is found in the Old Testament, as we see in today’s first reading and its response. The passage from Isaiah passage speaks of the “foreigners” who “join themselves to the Lord” and the Lord says, “I will bring them 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.”
The same theme resonates in today’s response, Psalm 67, in which we pray: “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 the nations, your salvation. May the nations be glad and exult because you rule the peoples in equity…”
Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman points to the eventual gentile acceptance of Jesus. His mission first unfolds within Judaism, but it will expand to include all peoples of the world.
The Canaanite woman’s faith inspires us to persistence. Sometimes we might be praying and asking the Lord for his help or assistance. Obstacles might present themselves from outside (mockery, scorn, contempt) or from within (fear, disappointment, fatigue). The resolute persistence of the woman encourages us to faithfulness.
At the same time, the universality of salvation calls us to share our faith with others. God pours out his love and mercy upon us in Christ Jesus. Faith helps us to recognize it and to share it.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.