August 5, 2020, Wednesday of the 18th Week of Ordinary Time
Scripture: Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
“Have mercy on me, Lord. . . . Help me.”
Today’s reading gives one pause. It does not at first glance seem to reflect what we would expect out of Jesus: that is, unlimited compassion for all regardless of class or ethnicity. Jesus and his disciples have entered a non-Jewish territory and a Canaanite woman is following him, crying out for help. But Jesus doesn’t seem to notice. His disciples are annoyed because she keeps yelling after them and Jesus doesn’t seem to care. They ask Jesus to send her away. Jesus tells the disciples that he has to focus on the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
The Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus seeking healing for her daughter is not to be deterred. She exemplifies the virtue of fortitude. She pleads, begs, and insists that Jesus help her daughter. Jesus’ response to her is shocking! “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” You might think that this woman’s first reaction would be to run away sobbing, but she does not give up. She refuses to back down until she receives a hearing. She acknowledges her need for Jesus. And, it is worth noting that although she tells Jesus about her daughter, she also pleads mercy for herself. She is distraught by her daughter’s illness and her own inability to help her.
This woman’s exchange with Jesus makes it seem as if he doesn’t want to help her. I don’t think Jesus would refuse anyone. But nonetheless we have what he says here, which does not seem to fit with our picture of him. What’s going on here? It may be that we are seeing here the human side of Jesus, — that Jesus himself needed someone (in this case this woman) to press him to widen his horizon of mission. Jesus sought to confine his ministry to the Jewish people, his native people, but this mother’s very human appeal caused him to see the universality of his calling. That’s one possible “take” on this troubling passage.
There is another possible explanation, which does not necessarily exclude the one just mentioned. It is that Jesus, knowing the desire of the woman’s heart, uses her situation to teach his disciples (and us) a lesson. That lesson is this: in the face of a personal challenge or an illness of a loved one, we may be tempted to feel helpless. We may feel we cannot ask for the Lord’s help. Jesus could be teaching us here, as he did in his parable of the persistent widow, to be persistent and not give in to hopelessness.
“Lord, have mercy on me.” Lord, as you know, that’s a prayer I pray often. It’s a prayer for the ages. So simple to say. So profound in meaning. Lord, you know I can be easily overwhelmed by the struggles and illnesses of family and friends. May your loving word give me the faith needed to believe in your love, to trust in your protection, and to hold on to hope.
Lord, have mercy. Increase my faith.