Jesus makes salvation a question of faith, not worth

By: By Tim Irwin

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 17

Isaiah 56:1,6-7; Psalm 67:2-3,5,6,8; Romans 11:13-15,29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus comes off a little surlier than normal in the Gospel according to Matthew for the Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time. Jesus and his disciples have withdrawn to Phoenicia, an area inhabited mostly by the Canaanites. A Canaanite woman speaks to Jesus. According to the customs of the day, this is wrong for three of reasons. First, this woman is in public without a male family member as chaperone. Second, she speaks to a man with whom she is not related. Third, the man is a Jew. It’s the trifecta of tacky.

One has to wonder, why did Matthew include this story? The story addresses a question as old as salvation history. Who can be saved? Clearly, the Children of Israel thought that the correct answer was the Children of Israel. They referred to themselves as the Chosen People. Prophets challenged that view as the reading from Isaiah illustrates: “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, I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer.” Isaiah announces that in the future the Lord’s house will be house of prayer for all peoples.

St. Paul, writing about eight centuries later, suggests that not much has changed: “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.”

Why would the Jews be jealous? Perhaps because they thought the Gentiles were unworthy of being saved. This business of worthiness is at the crux of the matter.

Being worthy had been synonymous with observing the Mosaic Covenant. Note that in Isaiah, the foreigners joined themselves to the covenant. That’s not at all what happened with the Canaanite woman. She is a desperate mother trying to help her daughter who is “tormented by demons.” Her love for her child drives her to defy the social norms of her day and speak to Jesus. She knows Jesus is the Messiah, because she calls him Lord, Son of David.

The disciples want Jesus to send her away, a reaction characteristic of the uncompassionate attitude that men had for women at the time. The Canaanite woman presses her plea. Jesus replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The Canaanite woman doesn’t back down; she offers homage to Jesus. It’s a move of humility, but in her culture it is also an act of defiance that would make Gloria Steinem proud.

“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus says. The Canaanite woman does not turn in disgrace and leave. She fires back an answer, “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.” That’s the point of the story. Jesus shifts the paradigm of salvation. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Canaanite, Hebrew, or Hellenist. Jesus doesn’t care who your daddy is. It’s about faith.

This Sunday may her tenacious spirit be our model for our faith. Image how the grace of the Holy Mass might be magnified in our lives if we accepted the “food of the children” — the Holy Eucharist — with the faith-filled perseverance of the Canaanite woman.


TIM IRWIN teaches at Peoria Notre Dame High School, where he chairs the Theology Department. He is a member of St. Mark Parish in Peoria.

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