August 17, 2014
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
21 Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
22 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." 23 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." 24 He said in reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 25 But the woman came and did him homage, saying, "Lord, help me." 26 He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs." 27 She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters." 28 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.
Last’s week’s gospel ended with the disciples giving Jesus homage. They had witnessed Jesus walking on water, rescuing Peter from the raging sea, and finally calming the chaos of the mighty winds. When their boat finally landed at Gennesaret, the people recognized Jesus and they brought the sick for him to cure. The Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem questioned Jesus as to why his disciples did not respect the tradition of washing before meals. Jesus responded by questioning their breaking of the commands of God by excusing someone from the obligation to care for their elderly parents if they would declare that the money needed was instead dedicated to God. Jesus quotes the great prophet Isaiah to support his case. Then Jesus publicly humiliates them by turning his attention to the crowd that had gathered and offering them an instruction about what it is that really defiles a person. His instruction is only one verse, “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.” (Matthew 18:11) The disciples approach Jesus to make him aware that he has offended the Pharisees and Scribes. Jesus disregards their concerns and continues calling them blind guides, and he goes on to explain his teaching on what it is that really defiles a person.
It is with that instruction on what truly defiles a person that Matthew begins his account of Jesus’ entrance to the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon, and then he has the encounter with the Canaanite woman that is the gospel text for this week. Mark also recounts Jesus’ traveling to this region and his encounter with this woman. (Mark 7:24-30) In Mark’s account of the encounter, the woman is described as Syro-Phoenician, not a Canaanite. Mark’s account omits part of the dialogue that Matthew has included in verses 22-24. Mark does not include Jesus’ praise for the woman’s faith that Matthew includes in verse 28. But Mark includes a statement from Jesus that the children of Israel must be fed first. Lastly Mark also adds to his account that the woman went home and found that her daughter had been healed. Matthew had access to Mark’s gospel, but some scholars believe he also had access to another, older account of this encounter.
If we focus on Matthew’s text, the first verse indicates that Jesus entered the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon without any indication that he was compelled to do so. His actions are a contradiction of his own instruction to the disciples when he sent them on their mission to the lost sheep of Israel. “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” (Matthew 10:5b) The understanding of the day viewed the border between Jewish and Gentile territory as being set by God, to separate God’s holy land, given to the people of Israel, from the pagan territory. The woman that Jesus encounters is described as a Canaanite. This description is rarely used at this point in history. It recalls the tribes that were occupying the land before the Jews seized control of the area. The Canaanites were one of the primary enemies of the Israelites. Besides being a pagan and one of the most hated enemies of God’s people, she was also an unescorted woman. All of these factors make Jesus’ contact with her a threat to his honor.
Jesus breaks with what was traditionally understood as sacred norms of behavior, enters the pagan lands, and encounters this mother whose daughter is possessed by a demon. She calls him “Son of David,” a title that would put him in line with King David. Even when she is ignored and insulted she continues to treat Jesus with respect and honor. Matthew does not tell us what is motivating the woman, but she seems to touch Jesus in a way that leads him to both cure the daughter and remark about the faith of the woman. There is no indication in the text that Jesus had gone there with the intention of extending the blessings of God’s healing to non-Jews. The opening part of the dialogue seems to indicate that he had no intention of doing so. Yet that is what happened.
Matthew’s account places more focus on the woman and the fact that she was a Canaanite, among enemies of Israel, outside the covenant of Israel. As such, Jesus’ interaction with her is breaching serious boundaries. The catalyst for this encounter was the faith of this woman. "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." What had been a barrier between Jesus and this woman has become the bridge connecting them.
1. Why would Jesus even go into the region of Tyre and Sidon and risk such an encounter?
2. Have you ever deliberately ignored another when they spoke to you? What would justify that kind of behavior for you?
3. Have you ever been asked to send away someone who was in need?
4. Have you ever felt like you were being ignored or sent away by God?
5. Who are the ones in your community who keep calling out for mercy? Who are the ones in the world calling out for mercy?
6. Of all the verbal debates Jesus encounters in the gospels, this is the only place where someone (a Canaanite woman) seems to get the upper hand. What does that say to you?
7. Why would Matthew include this encounter in his gospel?
8. Were do you encounter a Church that is as generous with the compassion of God as Jesus in this text?
9. How is God speaking to you in this text? How will you respond?
Reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.
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A Spanish translation of the reflection questions is made possible by Fernando Alessandrini.
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