Power of faith disposes us to compassion

Living the Word l Tim Irwin

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time l Aug. 20

Isaiah 56:1,6-7; Psalm 67:2-3,5,6,8; Romans 11:13-14,29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

The Gospel for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time presents an ancient example of a polarized society, perhaps encouraging some Christians who promote this view today. In fact, it is a call to look past ethnicity and see the humanity of others. The message unfolds in a dialogue between Jesus and a desperate Canaanite mother hoping to free her daughter from the torment of a demon.

The Children of Israel saw themselves as the chosen people, the descendants of Abraham who meticulously observed the Divine Law revealed through Moses at Mount Sinai. They were to be the beneficiaries of a Messiah, a descendent of King David, who would inaugurate a new age — the Kingdom of God. If there is an in-group, there must be an out-group and that included the Canaanites. “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’” (Matthew 15:22).

This mother is not to be underestimated. She recognizes Jesus as the promised Jewish Messiah, not what one would expect from a Canaanite. Despite being ignored, she will not take no for an answer and continues to call out. The disciples ask Jesus to send her away, apparently embarrassed by the scene she is creating. Finally, Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Rather than abandon her mission, she moves closer to Jesus, a socially questionable action in her culture, saying, “Lord, help me.”

“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus says, thus reflecting the prevailing view of the Children of Israel concerning the Canaanites.


This clever woman does not challenge the Lord’s conclusions, but suggests an acceptable way to include her daughter in the blessing of the Kingdom of God. She says, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus exclaims, “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 (Matthew 15:28).

The Canaanite woman exemplifies the depth of faith one has when the law is written on the heart. She is not concerned for herself. She was fully committed to the well-being of her daughter. . . .

One of Matthew’s overarching themes is the power of faith. Matthew offers many examples of the power of faith manifested as a commitment to the good of others climaxing in the Judgment of Nations (Matthew 25:31-46). He presents Jesus as the new Moses sent by the Father, not to replace the law, but to perfect it by writing it on the human heart.

The Canaanite woman exemplifies the depth of faith one has when the law is written on the heart. She is not concerned for herself. She was fully committed to the well-being of her daughter; such is the power of faith.

The Canaanite woman offers a lesson in how to mitigate the destructive effects of living in a polarized society. Prudence is the virtue of doing what is truly good in a good way. Throughout her interaction with Jesus, she models the virtue of prudence by de-escalating any potential for conflict.

It would be fascinating to know how the disciples reacted to her conversation with the Lord. Apparently, they understood the importance of this exchange, since Matthew included it in the Gospel.

The solution then and now is compassion. Compassion travels a road paved in prudence. It bypasses the self-centered motives that aim to weaponize resources against an out-group –hate the sin; love the sinner.

The power of faith disposes us to be prudent disciples compassionately inviting the outsiders in, thus expanding the Kingdom of God just as a desperate Canaanite mother once did.

TIM IRWIN teaches theology and philosophy at Notre Dame High School in Peoria. He is a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Morton.

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