The Dispatch: More from CWR...

“Lord, help me”: The startling humility of the Canaanite woman

On the Readings for Sunday, August 20, 2017

Detail from "The Canaanite Woman" [c. 1390-1415] by the Limbourg brothers (WikiArt.org)

Readings:
• Isa 56:1, 6-7
• Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
• Rom 11:13-15, 29-32
• Mt 15:21-28

“Why doesn’t God answer my prayer? I feel as if God is ignoring me!”

Have you ever had those thoughts and feelings? If so, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman should be of interest. Actually, it’s interesting, regardless, because it offers insight into the nature of faith and God’s love.

Jesus, today’s Gospel states, “withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” It was the region, north of Galilee, in which the wicked Queen Jezebel had dwelt, and also where Elijah went in order to live with the destitute widow (1 Kngs 17:8-24). Also, recall that earlier, when Jesus had reproached those Israelite towns in which he had performed miracles and yet was rejected, he had declared: “For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes” (Matt 11:20-22).

Jesus knew that his mission, focused initially on Israel, would reach out to the wider pagan world. Why, then, did Jesus say, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”? Part of the answer is that Jesus was impressing upon his disciples the priority and trajectory of his mission. Israel was to be given every opportunity to accept the Messiah, precisely because Israel was to be the firstborn of all the nations. We cannot underestimate the deep love that Jesus had for his people and land, nor should we ignore the obvious hurt and deep frustration caused by the lack of repentance and faith among his land and people.

How did the Canaanite woman know about Jesus? We don’t know for certain, but it is apparent that word of Jesus and his deeds had spread beyond Israel. Whatever the case, the woman’s approach to Jesus and the disciples was both obnoxious and remarkable. She literally screamed at them, displaying her obvious desperation and suffering; she was, simply, in serious need of mercy and a miracle—and she knew it.

“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!” she yelled, “My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Notice that her first request was not for physical help, but for spiritual mercy. By God’s grace, she recognized that Jesus was not a magician or a traveling teacher; he possessed real authority and power. Jesus, however, did not answer. Yet, he also didn’t send her away. A profound lesson was about to be revealed to the annoyed disciples. They asked Jesus to rebuke her, and he referenced his mission to Israel. That response is puzzling, of course, because if he was sent only to Israel, why were they not in Israel? And why did he not tell the annoying woman to leave?

The answers are found in the fact that Jesus seeks those who recognize their need to be saved, to repent, to follow him, and to exercise real faith. The woman, meanwhile, approached and “did Jesus homage,” quietly uttering the most basic and fundamental of prayers at the feet of God: “Lord, help me.” The Pharisees had rejected Jesus, thinking they had all they needed; the towns refused to repent, believing they were without fault. But the Canaanite woman knew her need and her fault.

Until that moment, Jesus had not spoken to her. When he did, he used words that reflected the standard Jewish perspective toward pagans. In doing so, he showed how the same dark pride was the source of both the rejection of the Incarnate Word and the dismissal of those who were Gentiles. The woman was willing to humbly eat scraps from the table of the Israelites, and Jesus was willing to humble himself on the Cross, despite being the King of kings.

She, of course, was a sinner, and he is the Son of God. But both were familiar with pain and rejection, and both were willing to sacrifice everything for those who were lost and dying. God always hear us, especially when we say, “Lord, help me.”

About Carl E. Olson 1043 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

2 Comments

  1. “We cannot underestimate the deep love that Jesus had for his people” a gentle affection which is confirmed by The Apostle of the Gentiles who always first visited the synagogue in his journeys. Teresa of Avila in Interior Castle urges “humility, humility, humility” to dispose God to favor us. Due to our unworthiness. The more we acknowledge that like the Canaanite woman the greater Our Lord’s mercy. That certainly offers correction to the quandary over mercy devoid of repentance. Also as you explain it resolves the “puzzle” of Jesus actions. He sought from the Gentiles the humility inspired faith absent among the chosen people. For ourselves humility makes us better disposed to love each other. We refrain from considering ourselves superior to others. Rather than foisting our own sense of worth we are more apt to perceive the good in others.

  2. Indeed
    The canaanite woman’s response astonished Christ ” Oh woman great is your faith” recalls our Lord’s response to the Roman centurion “never have I seen such faith in Israeli” interestingly, both were gentiles despised by Jews.
    It must have stunned Christ who was mysteriously going to ignore her. However, her recognition of him as Lord, coupled with doing him homage saves her daughter.
    Humility, homage and recognizing him as Lord is the key to his heart

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. “Lord, help me”: The startling humility of the Canaanite woman - Catholic Daily

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*