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The 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
during the coronavirus pandemic
August 16, 2020

Click here to watch Father Ryan give this homily. The homily begins at 25:04.

    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 tormented daughter makes a strong statement about persistent prayer, mind-changing prayer – prayer that absolutely refuses to take no for an answer. It’s a story with a happy outcome, but not every aspect of the story is happy. For me, among all the gospel stories, this one stands out for 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 quite out of character, doesn’t he, when he sharply rebuffs the poor woman? He does have his reasons, of course: she was an outsider, after all - a foreigner, a Canaanite - and Canaanites and Israelites had been enemies for generations, sworn enemies. But was that a good reason for Jesus to ignore her, to turn his back on her - even to insult her by speaking of taking the children’s food and throwing it to the 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 mean it when he said to the woman, “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 notice how she addresses Jesus – she uses insider titles like “Son of David,” and “Lord” – perhaps hoping that these would get his attention and win him over to her cause. But Jesus was having none of it. He was holding to a very fixed notion about the nature of his mission – that his mission was to his own people, not to foreigners. But was the woman deterred by that?  Not for a moment. Jesus could say all he wanted about boundaries and priorities. That wasn’t going to stop her – not when the life and well-being of her tortured child was at stake!

     For me, this rather jarring exchange speaks to the authenticity of the gospels. That Matthew and Mark both chose to include a story that put Jesus in a less than flattering light says something about how much we can trust the gospels. There’s no attempt here to whitewash. None. By including the story, the evangelist seems to be telling us that Jesus could listen and learn: grow in understanding, gain new perspective, even be ‘converted’ - because that, in fact, is what happened. But if Jesus was human as well as divine, 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 and in both stories it’s in response to a request made by a woman. You know the other story very well: it’s the story of the wedding feast at Cana where Mary, his mother, 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 marginalized, to say the least: 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 to help, but in earning his admiration as well. “Woman, great is your faith!’ has to be one of the highest compliments Jesus pays anyone in the gospels.

     So, my friends, the Canaanite woman makes it clear that there is a place for persistent, tenacious prayer, prayer that doesn’t readily take no for an answer. And there is this, too: that nameless, faith-filled Canaanite woman should bring encouragement to those who find themselves on the fringes or at the margins. Women in the Church come to mind. I think you will agree that, when it comes to recognizing and affirming women’s gifts for leadership and giving them the kinds of positions where they can truly exercise those gifts, the Church still has a long way to go. Pope Francis is committed to opening doors but it’s very much a work in progress, a work that has a long way to go. Along the way, can you think of a better advocate, a better patron saint, than the Canaanite woman? And what better place to focus our prayer on these things than here at the table of the Eucharist - the Breaking of the Bread - where eyes can be opened and minds and hearts can be changed!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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