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

On the Readings for Sunday, August 20, 2023

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

• 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 overestimate 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.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 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.


  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.

    • Thank you, Fr Morello. I read many of the articles on Catholic World and specifically look for your comments. They always make me think of the real gist of the article and the correct way to think of the point the writer is trying to get across. God bless you Fr Morello. Please pray for me.

  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

  3. Some homilists and commentators seem scandalized and embarrassed by Christ’s response to the Canaanite woman’s request as she knelt before Him: “Lord, help me.” He replies with “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” How could he say that to a woman desperate to get help for a daughter possessed by a demon?

    He saw her great faith, her heroic love for her daughter, and her great humility. He saw it. His disciples didn’t. His remark was to reveal the depth of her amazing faith, love and humility to the disciples and to us. Her response, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” did that.

  4. Very related to this episode of Jesus’ ministry, where he challenged, chastised and confronted harshly just to test the Faith of this Canaanite woman, is the fact that God is not a shy, shaky, insecure old man in the sky who would never treat us harshly or punish us but always pamper us to gain out approval.

    When the love is real, like God’s Love is in an infinite manner, he doesn’t hold back from ways to call us sinners to repentance and growth in Faith and holiness. Saving pain in this temporary world saves us from eternal, never ending pain in Hell. Now many among the top Clergy of the Church say that the “real” Virgin Mary would never pray for chastisements against us as we deserve, but in fact she does as her love is most holy and most real, like God’s who she is so united to. Beware of Satan’s homosexual-style pampering, accompanying and cuddling of sin.

  5. The very best study of the virtue of Humility (in my not-always-humble opinion) is Father Cajetan Mary da Bergamo’s “Humility of Heart,” published by TAN Books. Humility is best thought of as the “gateway” virtue on the path that leads to the Kingdom of God. It’s that important.

    In stirring Traditionalist Catholic prose, Father Cajetan writes at the very start of his book:

    “In Paradise there are many Saints who never gave alms on earth: their poverty justified them. There are many Saints who never mortified their bodies by fasting or wearing hair shirts: their bodily infirmities excused them. There are many Saints too who were not virgins: their vocation was otherwise. But in Paradise there is no Saint who was not humble.”

    • Raymond B. Marcin, I have that book and read it often. Humility is power before God and through God to accomplish God’s purposes. I hope and pray that you are not using this book to gaslight and push for the fake kind of humility that “accompanies” and is in endless “dialogue” and “understanding” of sin and those who never plan to repent, enjoying that false humility so as to lead others to Hell. The impostor and false humility of Satan is what has enthroned sinful homosexuals and all other unrepentant sinners in the Clergy and Laity as “legitimate authority that we must obey”.

      The false and impostor humility of Satan is absolutely opposite to that of Jesus-God and that is super clearly illustrated on the Gospel story in this article. Satan’s false and impostor humility is a disguise for willful pride and stubborn love for sin and all evil. As Jesus graphically illustrated on the Cross, if we are not constantly and ruthlessly crucifying sin, then we are a slave and parasite to it. And then you we not humble but sinfully proud.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. “Lord, help me”: The startling humility of the Canaanite woman - Catholic Daily
  2. Even The Dogs: The Canannite Woman and Us – Lin Weeks Wilder

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