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The 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 20, 2017

     There’s not one among us, I’m sure, who doesn’t have stories to tell about praying earnestly to God for something we dearly wanted and not receiving what we asked for; stories, too, about the disillusionment we felt, not to mention the questions that arose about the point of prayer and the value of prayer. Over time I have found some reassurance – and maybe you have, too – in something spiritual writers have long told us about prayer – that prayer is not so much about changing God’s mind: that it’s more about deepening our relationship with God to the point that our will comes closer to God’s will – so much so that we’re able to accept whatever it is that God gives us. And it’s hard to argue with that.

     Today’s gospel, however, does not advance that argument. The story about the fiercely determined mother going after Jesus to heal her sick daughter makes a strong statement about persistent prayer, mind-changing prayer – prayer that refuses to take no for an answer. The story itself is one of the more difficult ones in all the gospels. It may not be the most difficult – but for me it stands alone in its power to puzzle, to surprise and, yes, even to shock.

     The surprising – even shocking – part of the story is that Jesus doesn’t really come off all that well. He seems so out of character, doesn’t he, when he rather rudely rebuffs the poor mother. He does have his reasons, of course: the woman was an outsider, after all - a foreigner, a Canaanite - and Canaanites were ancient enemies of the Israelites. But was that a good reason for Jesus to ignore her, to turn his back on her - even to insult her in the way he does by referring to her people as dogs?

     Some commentators, it’s true, try to get Jesus off the hook by suggesting that he was only joking with the woman – engaging in some light banter with her – but that seems like a stretch to me. There’s no reason to think Jesus didn’t meant it when he said, “It is not right to take the food of children and feed it to the dogs.”

     And the woman certainly meant it when she delivered her feisty comeback: “Please, Lord, even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ tables!”

     The woman was as clever as she was determined. She may have been a foreigner but she chose just the right titles in addressing Jesus – flattering, insider titles like ‘Son of David’ and “Lord” – hoping that these would get his attention and win him over to her cause.  But Jesus was having none of it. He was locked in a very fixed notion about the nature of his mission – that he was sent not to save foreigners but only his own people.  But was the woman deterred by that?  Not for a moment. Jesus could say all he wanted about boundaries and nationalities and religious restrictions. That wasn’t going to stop her – not when the life of her sick child was at stake!

     For me, this less-than-flattering story about Jesus speaks to the authenticity of the gospels.  That Matthew and Mark both chose to record a story that put Jesus in a poor light says something about how much we can trust the gospels.  There’s no attempt here to whitewash. None.  By including the story the evangelists seem to be telling us that Jesus could grow in understanding - that he could actually rethink his position and change his mind, because that, in fact, is what he did. But if he was human why not?  Fast-forward to his agonizing prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. His humanness was much in evidence there, too. Remember how he had to struggle and sweat to bring his own will into conformity with his Father’s….

     And there’s another aspect to this story of the Canaanite woman that is worth commenting on.  It’s one of two stories in all the gospels where Jesus changes his mind in response to a request by a woman.  You know the other one very well: it’s the story of the wedding feast at Cana where Mary is the one who gets Jesus to change his mind.  All this is quite surprising because in the world in which Jesus lived, women were utterly marginalized: their rights were few to none at all.  All the more striking, then, that Jesus would allow a woman – and a Canaanite woman at that - not only to teach him something but also to get him to change his mind.  All the more striking, too, that she would succeed not only in getting Jesus’ help but his admiration as well.  “Woman, great is your faith!’ is one of the highest – if not the highest – compliments Jesus pays anyone in the gospels.

     So, my friends, it seems there is a place for persistent, tenacious prayer, after all - prayer that is bent on changing God’s mind.  And I would hope there’s also encouragement for those who are on the fringes and the margins to find their voice like that woman did: to speak up and speak out!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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