The Canaanite woman, silver spoons, and Pharisees

On the Readings for Sunday, August 17, 2014


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

Those raised in privilege and wealth are said to have been “born with a silver spoon in their mouth.” Money and status can certainly be an advantage when it comes to one’s career, education, and relationships. But there are no spiritual silver spoons. Our social connections, incomes, and talents cannot put us in right relationship with God.

This fact should be obvious to us. But human nature, fallen and proud, is tempted to rely on temporal advantages when it comes to eternal realities.

One of the great challenges Jesus faced was the deeply rooted belief, held by many of his fellow Jews, that because they were Jewish, they had it made—that is, they were right with God, while Gentiles were not. Contact with Gentiles, or pagans—who did not worship the one true God—was kept to a minimum; too much contact could result in physical and spiritual impurity. “The Jews are extremely loyal toward one another,” observed the first-century Roman historian Tacitus (ca. 56-ca. 117), “and always ready to show compassion, but toward every other people they feel only hate and enmity” (The Histories, 5.5). The enmity was so strong that Gentiles were sometimes called “dogs.”

Jesus did not, of course, downplay the false beliefs and immoral actions of pagans. Rather, he pointed out that they also were invited to enter into a saving covenant with Yahweh, the God of all men. As today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah demonstrates, this was not a new idea: “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” But it was not a popular idea due, in part, to the brutal mistreatment Jews sometimes endured at the hands of certain Gentiles. Yet it was also due to spiritual blindness and an unwillingness to accept the words of the prophets.

Matthew’s Gospel, written for a Jewish audience, described how and why Jesus, after meeting stiff resistance from his fellow Jews, began preaching to Gentiles. Today’s Gospel is a dramatic example of how Jesus bridged the great chasm between the two groups.

Having had yet another clash with the Pharisees, who he described as “blind guides” (Matt 15:14), Jesus left Galilee and went into pagan territory on the Phoenician coast, which is modern-day Lebanon. At the same time, a Canaanite woman came to meet him. We don’t know how she knew of Jesus, which makes her greeting all the more audacious and remarkable: “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!”

In speaking so boldly to a Jewish man, she trampled upon the social norms of the day. But her boldness seemed, at first, to be counter-productive. Jesus ignored her. Or did he? Is it not true that God sometimes seems to be silent and to ignore us? Jesus’ lack of response was, it appears, meant to do two things: elicit her remarkable public statement of faith and show his disciples what is most important in the Kingdom of God.

“This woman,” wrote Epiphanus the Latin, a late fifth-century Christian commentator, “is the mother of the Gentiles, and she knew Christ through faith.” Confronted with divine silence, she did not waver, but pleaded a second time, “Lord, help me.” Then, having been rebuffed by the standard Jewish perspective of the time, she demonstrated profound humility and faith, readily accepting the label of a dog. “Faith accepts what work does not merit,” remarked Epiphanus, “and through faith the Gentiles were made children out of dogs.”

Jesus’ response was equally surprising, for his acclamation—“O woman, great is your faith!”—was filled with respect and affection. By saying, “Let it be done for you as you wish,” he acknowledged the purity of her faith and intentions, something he could not do for the Pharisees, despite their education, position, and power. As he stated later, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt 23:13). The Canaanite woman, humble is spirit, had no need for silver spoons, being blessed beyond measure with divine love and communion with God.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the August 17, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 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 Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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