Year A: Twentieth Sunday Ordinary Time

The Canaanite Woman’s Faith.

Matthew 15: 21-28

Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 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.” 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.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” 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.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When have you had an experience that caused you to re-think what you believed God was asking of you? Tell the story.
  2. “Great faith is the persistent creativity to bring about the good” Do you think of your faith as something to be creative with? What would that look like for you?
  3. Where have you faced challenges in holding on to your faith?
  4. Do you feel any responsibility to welcome outsiders or newcomers to your community? Have you actively done this before…why or why not?

Biblical Context

Matthew 15: 21-28
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Our Lectionary readings now move forward to the middle of chapter 15. Once again, we have skipped over Jesus’ ongoing controversies with the Pharisees. After being criticized by the Pharisees because his disciples do not wash their hands before eating? Jesus teaches the crowd that it is what comes out of a person that defiles that person: “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness blasphemy. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile” (Matt 15:19). On hearing that the Pharisees have taken offense at his teaching, Jesus calls them “blind guides” (Matt 15:14a) and tells his disciples to leave them alone.

Now Jesus moves on to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman, that is, a woman who is not Jewish, asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Matthew tells us that “Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.” The woman has presented Jesus with a dilemma. As we already know, Jesus has instructed his disciples not to “go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt lQ:5b-6). If Jesus responds to this woman, he will be acting contrary to his own instructions.

The disciples, perhaps because of Jesus’ previous instructions, feel no responsibility to help the woman. They tell Jesus, “Send her away for she keeps calling out after us.” The disciples are acting just as they did when the crowd was hungry. They wanted to send the crowd away too. On that occasion Jesus told the disciples to feed the crowd, not to send them a way. Now Jesus seems to be torn between his two instructions.

Rather than sending the woman away Jesus is honest about his dilemma. Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus is repeating his understanding of his own mission, the mission that he shared with his disciples. But the woman persists. She does him homage, calls him “Lord,” and humbly asks for help- Jesus obviously does not want to reject the woman because he continues to engage her in conversation. Nor does he want to act contrary to his own idea of his mission. Using an expression of the time, Jesus explains to the woman that it would not be right to give to her what belongs to others: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.

Something about Jesus’ tone must have invited the woman to persevere. She responds, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” This quick rejoinder rings true to Jesus. Many of the house of Israel do not have faith, in him. Yet here is a foreigner who does have faith in Jesus and who asks for a healing, not for herself, but for her daughter. Jesus grants the woman her request: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

It seems that Jesus found the woman’s need and faith so strong that his encounter with her caused him to broaden his own idea of what he was called to do. This story foreshadows the commissioning of Jesus’ disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). It also emphasizes that the primary component in any healing is faith. We do not know that the daughter is even present, but her mother’s faith is so strong that “the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.”

Doing What it Takes

John Shea

I once did a workshop on theological reflection at Mill Hill outside London. At one point the group decided to work with this story from St. Matthew. The discussion was wide ranging. People shared many ideas about how to interpret this story and how to apply it to contemporary situations, especially to issues about women in the Church.

There was a quiet, older woman who did not participate very much. But she was very attentive and seemed avidly interested. Finally, after everyone else had their say, she quietly contributed, “It’s her daughter. She wants her daughter better, and she’ll do what it takes.”

It rang true.

The character of the Canaanite woman changes throughout the story. She is noisy and assertive, then pleading and compliant, then clever and confrontative. Her consistency does not lie in her attitudes and behaviors. She is unified by her mission. She has a demon-afflicted child, and if this Jewish Messiah can help, he is going to. Little things—such as ethnic diversity and hatred—will not stand in the way.

Jesus characterizes this woman as having great faith. We often think of faith as belief in God. “Great” faith is often construed as believing in God even in situations of suffering. In suffering situations there is the temptation to feel we have been abandoned by God. Great faith asserts God is present even when obvious signs of that presence are missing. Holy people always acknowledge and pray to God.

However, this is not the great faith of the Canaanite woman. Her faith is that she is a tiger. There is a situation that needs healing, and she is the single-minded servant of that possibility. If she has to twist the arm of a Jewish Messiah and remind him that although there may be many ethnic groups and religions there is only one God, then so be it.

I once saw a contemporary mother tell her son about her commitment to ridding him of the particular demon that had taken up residence in his attitudes. “I want you to know I am never going to stop. You think you can sulk and avoid me, and I will go away. I am never going away. I want you to know that. And you can never run far enough to get away from me. This stuff is going to change.” If you heard her voice, the tone and timbre, you would know that you had encountered an absolute, an unshakeable presence in a world of swaying reeds.

However, faith is not only a relentless commitment to the betterment of people and situations. It is also the creative ability to find a way to that betterment. The thing about creativity is that it does not have a preset agenda. It has an ultimate mission, but it does not have a canonized strategy. Creativity does not know what it is up against. It does know that there will be resistance, but it does not know the exact nature of that resistance. So, it is ready, alert, poised, marshaled for whatever it takes. Does it take argument? Then there will be argument. Does it take obeisance? Then there will be obeisance. Does it take confrontation? Then there will be confrontation. Of course, there are limits. The end does not justify the means. But the point is: the full range of human creativity is exercised in pursuit of healing.

When we understand great faith as the persistent creativity to bring about the good, the ranks of the saints swell with a different crowd of people. There is a research doctor with his eyeball glued to the microscope, a community organizer in the back of the hall urging voices not used to talking, a teacher finding a way into a closed mind, a banker figuring out how to get a loan to a woman on the edge of qualification, a salesperson dedicated to the customer, etc. In fact, great faith belongs to all of us when we remind each other of the deeper truth of who weare, and compassion flows from us into situations where it is deeply needed.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.