Year A Ordinary 20
When I was in seminary at Yale, we had a class called Difficult Texts of the Bible. In it, we would look at some of the really hard to understand parts of the Bible, like St. Paul talking about women being silent in Church, or the one about women being obedient to their husbands in marriage. Those aren’t the hills I want to die on today, so moving on quickly, the point is that often these texts have meanings that make a lot of sense once we really understand the context and culture of the time period during which they were written. Today in our Gospel we encounter one of these difficult texts, in which Our Lord seems to compare this Canaanite woman to a dog. We recoil at it, and it seems out of character for Jesus to be so harsh.
For me, there are two ways in which this interaction is off-putting. First, in the way Our Lord speaks to the woman, and second, as I though about it I realized that the way she responds with such docility also bothers me. I kind of want her to fight back, to get offended. I mean, imagine if this happened today. There would be a twitter campaign to hashtag Our Lord into a guilty apology (#notmysavior). There would be a protest at his next speaking event with clever signs and profanity. She would be on television talking about her grievances. We are almost trained in our society to always show pride, always get what’s ours even if we have to fight for it, and to never, ever allow anyone to question our life choices. This Canaanite woman, though, she does the unexpected and quietly absorbs the rejection of her request for her daughter to be healed. She humbles herself and she tries again.
In fact, she tries three times before her request is granted. Third time’s a charm. I would have given up after the first time, then I would’ve posted a cathartic rant on my facebook page to get sympathy. But here’s the thing, I would have left Jesus empty-handed. The Woman gets what she wants. Out of love for her daughter, she is willing to confront any challenge, even one as difficult as practicing humility. That’s the difference – humility.
Everything around us encourages us to be proud. I’m my own person, I’m an adult and I do what I want. My life is my own and no one is allowed to judge. Here we are, being schooled by a pagan woman, essentially not a believer, and yet she has the humility that many of us lack. St. Gregory, pointing out how great she is, writes, “The Canaanite woman…sprang up from the valleys like a sacred lily, exhaling with her words the fragrance of the divine Spirit from her mouth.” Her request is granted, and indeed she gets way more than she bargains for, because the healing of her daughter isn’t actually the best gift that Our Lord gives to her that day.
The key to understanding this is the fact that she makes exactly three attempts of faith and the conversation revolves around a meal. It is at another meal, the Last Supper, where Jesus himself would later be betrayed and led into captivity, and it was three times that his friend Peter would refuse to identify with him. Knowing this, we can see that Jesus is offering a precious gift – the opportunity to join him in his impending humiliation. This is the sort of gift that a person might be tempted to give back, but Our Lord bestows it to help her resolve her nascent faith and discover from the depths of her soul a quality that she perhaps never knew she had. He saw in her soul a mirror of his own. Although separate, the one reflects the other, and the woman, although a limited, finite human being, is like a shard of glass reflecting the infinite mystery of her origin. A sinner and a pagan, she has nevertheless been created to find her way to God and live with him forever. She, like every single human being, was created to be saved. In order to grasp it, she had only to be given the opportunity to reach out in faith.
So, why is it that we recoil at the way she is treated and responds in turn? Speaking for myself, it’s because of pride. Our Lord is offering the greatest gift, to join him at the center of everything, to see that our lives are offerings to be poured out, that on our own we are humble and limited but with him we are like blood that is drawn into the very heart of the Body of Christ, into the womb of the Church, and so into eternity itself. But the first step is to acknowledge how weak we are, that our lives pass by unexpectedly quickly and we are powerless to stop the flow of time, that we are every minute approaching our own deaths, and in that recognition of the grave there is not slavery but freedom, because it means every passing moment is united with the sacrifice of love, every moment is an emptying of self. We are not God, we are not eternal, and when we come to his banquet table we do so trusting not in our own righteousness but in his manifold and great mercies. The theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar wonders about the way in which we sense that our lives are melting away behind us and yet remain confused about where it all ends. He says, “You sense Time and yet have not sensed his Heart? You feel the stream of grace which rushes into you, warm and red, and yet have not felt how you are loved?” Once you feel that, once you have encountered Christ, held him in his Eucharistic form on your tongue, glimpsed your unity with his Sacred Heart, you will be comforted to know that try as we might to abandon ourselves for him, even if all we can do is come to Jesus desperate for healing and beg for help, we are already accepted and loved.
O Lord, we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table, but thou art the same Lord who property is always to have mercy. May we evermore dwell in you and you in us.