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