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20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (20.08.17)
THE HEALING POWER OF FAITH
A grieving mother’s vocalised disconsolation is unavoidably arresting. We may not be surprised that Jesus’ disciples interceded with him on behalf of the woman, but was their motivation entirely altruistic? “Give her what she wants,” they said to Jesus, “because she is shouting after us.” You can read Matthew’s account of the episode in the Gospel for the 20th Sunday (15:21-28).
Our 21st century world is overwhelmed with constantly increasing sounds of distress. Despite so many advances in science and technology the means of bringing lasting relief to those in distress escapes humanity. Which is not to say that relief is not available but rather that humanity has yet to avail itself of the pathway God is offering.
Matthew gives a ringside account of the behaviour of the unnamed disconsolate Canaanite mother. She vocalised her pain and in so doing caught Jesus’ attention. The land of Canaan, centred on Palestine, was situated at the crossroads of Egyptian, Mycenaean, Cretan and Mesopotamian cultures. The Canaanites were the original pre-Israelite inhabitants whose language was a form of ancient Hebrew that related to the Hebrew of the Old Testament as Chaucer’s English relates to modern English. Practising Jews would not enter Canaan territory nor have any contact with its people whom the Jews regarded as unclean. You may recall the amazement of a Canaanite woman at Joseph’s well when Jesus, a Jew, asked her for a drink of water (John 4:5-30).
It’s opportune to recall that many, long-term, distressed people endure pain or hardship without revealing their feelings. Jesus could discern when a person was in distress irrespective of their stoicism. In the same way that he could discern a person’s faith or their unawareness of their spiritual distress. Recall, for example, Matthew’s story of the long-suffering woman who, as it were, ‘pickpocketed’ her healing (9:21). Ill as she was, and therefore classifiably ‘unclean’ under Jewish Law, her faith motivated her to make a silent approach to Jesus. She believed that if she could just touch the fringe of his garment, she would be healed. Coming up behind him, surrounded as he was by crowds, many of whom would have momentary contact with him, she intentionally touched the hem of his garment and was instantly healed. Jesus, aware of the healing that had gone out of him, asked the dumbfounded crowd, “Who touched me?” The now healed woman owned up and was rewarded by Jesus addressing her as ‘Daughter’, the only woman Jesus addressed with that title.
Jesus was no stranger in the land of Canaan (Luke 9:51 and 17:11). Crowds even came from Tyre and Sidon, Gentile port cities north of Israel, to see and listen to Him (Mark 3:7-8). Jesus, a Jew, is conscious that his primary mission is to the Jews. (This Sunday’s Matthew Gospel 15:24) He nevertheless, ministered to the non-Jews who demonstrated faith in him.
Luke (10:13-14) and Matthew (11:20-24) tell of Jesus mentioning Tyre and Sidon. He compared them to the Jewish cities in which He had performed miracles. But those citizens had refused to repent and believe in him. Jesus berated his unbelieving fellow Jews saying that had Tyre and Sidon been given the same opportunity the citizenry would have turned from their wickedness and been saved:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you.” (Luke 10:13-14)
It may also help to scene-set Jesus’ encounter with the unnamed but passionate Canaanite woman. Notice how she addressed Jesus: “Sir, Son of David, take pity on me.” The title “Son of David” is, in addition to being a statement of physical genealogy, a Messianic title. In referring to Jesus as the Son of David, people hailed him as the long-awaited Deliverer, the living fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies. Matthew’s first chapter gives the genealogical proof that Jesus, in His humanity, was a direct descendant of Abraham and David through Joseph, Jesus’ Foster-father. Jesus, by lineage, is a blood descendant of David through Mary. In Judaism Jewishness is inherited through the mother not the father.
Is there a sense of this mother’s fear of exhaustion that would have brought tragic consequences for her daughter? The mother explains: “My daughter is tormented by a devil.”
Humanity has a long conflicted history with Satan. Eve and Adam were his first conquest and he has had success with all their progeny save one, Mary the Immaculate Mother of God-made-Man. The open warfare between humanity, as the adopted children of God, and Satan has an unquantifiable number of battlefronts that relate to individuals or to individuals who, collectively, form a nation or a group. This on-going conflict is epitomised by the heartfelt outpouring of the Canaanite mother battling with Satan for the wellbeing of her daughter. Our brains are hotwired for hope because it is God who created us and who keeps us in being.
Jesus presents his imploring disciples with a conundrum: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” As on the occasion of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus knew what he was going to do (John 6: 5-7). By this time the Canaanite woman had approached Jesus and was on her knees. The disciples were silent but the mother continued to be vocal: “Lord, help me.” Jesus said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” To which the Canaanite mother responded: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
In those days yard-dogs lived rough with frugal nourishment, much like their oppressed owners. These were not the pampered pooches that compete at ‘Crufts’. Did Jesus take deliberate advantage of a scenario that had presented itself to allow a public display of his own people’s prejudices? A ‘foreign’ (Canaanite) woman demonstrated real faith in Jesus and revealed his own people’s shameful narrowness of heart and mind. The question is not who came first or who is more privileged, but through whom is God more able to work, at any given moment, for the good of all?
We can imagine Jesus’ commendation of the mother to have been heartfelt: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Instantly, Satan’s hold over the beloved daughter was broken. Here’s a challenging thought to compliment a challenging Gospel. It is God’s Chosen People (originally the Jews but now extended to embrace Baptised Christians) who are called to be ‘the light to the world’. For that to happen, there will need to be a worldwide reinvigoration of the personal faith of the Chosen peoples in which all accept Jesus as their Messiah. This is especially true for the Chosen peoples in Europe. Put another way, if Christians and Jews were to find a living unity in Jesus Christ, would there be an ISIS? What a cause for prayer!