Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
17 August a.d. 2014
In order to better understand today’s Gospel reading, we must first see the context in which it is placed. Today’s Gospel is a contrast to what immediately precedes it in the fifteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Starting in the first verse, we have the Pharisees coming to Jesus and questioning Him saying, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” They came to Him with this question because they were trying to defend the Jewish religion. But, they had forgotten the most important point of being a Jew–the Jews were God’s Chosen People–the people who had received the promise of the coming Messiah. That is why Jesus comes right back at them by asking “why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” He is trying to bring into their minds what is truly important and it is this interaction with the Pharisees that sets the stage for Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel.
The Catechism tells us that “certain Gentiles…recognized in Jesus the fundamental attributes of the messianic ‘Son of David,’ promised by God to Israel.” (CCC §439 n.38) And the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel is one who is mentioned specifically in the Catechism. Even though it was the Jews, represented by the Pharisees in the first verse, who received the promise of the Messiah, they rejected Jesus. But, on the other hand, this Canaanite woman, a foreigner from a people who worshipped idols, recognized the Truth about who Jesus is, which is evidenced by the fact that she called Him “Lord, Son of David.” Referring to the title ‘Lord’ the Catechism states, “This title testifies to the respect and trust of those who approach (Jesus) for help and healing.” (CCC §448) And the title “Son of David” is a Messianic title. From this we see that the woman, even though she was not a Jew, understood who Jesus truly was better than the Jews themselves.
But since this woman understood who Jesus was, why did our Lord at first brush off her pleas for help by saying to His disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”? And then, when she moved closer and knelt before Him, why did He utter the harsh words, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”? There are at least two reasons that He did so.
The first reason that explains why Jesus was so harsh with the Canaanite woman is that it gave her an opportunity to demonstrate the magnitude of her faith. When Jesus left the Pharisees and entered into the district of Tyre and Sidon He already knew He would encounter this woman and what it is that she would say. But, if He had simply healed the woman’s daughter at her first request then she would not have had the opportunity to show her faith. Amongst many of His own people, Jesus did not find the faith that He was looking for and certainly this must have been disheartening to Him. Of this the Catechism states, “Jesus is as saddened by the ‘lack of faith’ of his own neighbors and the ‘little faith’ of his own disciples as he is struck with admiration at the great faith” of Gentiles such as the Roman centurion from the eighth chapter of St. Matthew and the Canaanite woman from today’s Gospel. (CCC §2610)
The second reason that our Lord is so harsh to the woman today is because the interaction He had with the woman gives us some very important lessons about prayer. If He had immediately granted her request we would not benefit from learning this lesson. The first thing we should notice is that in order to obtain from Christ what she wanted, she “came out” of her country. Remember that her country was full of idolatry and she had to turn her back on all of that in order to come to Jesus. In a similar manner, we too must turn our back on the world and its various idols of false desires when we come to Jesus in our prayer.
Next we are told “she came and knelt before him”, which is a sign that she was worshipping Him, with some translations even saying she worshipped Him. When we come to Jesus in prayer we must remember that He is God. After all, what would be the point in praying to Him if He was not God? And even though we may acknowledge His divinity with our minds, do our actions demonstrate our belief in Him as God? All too often we put ourselves as the center of our own little universe and relegate Christ to a periphery aspect of our lives. If we do this then why should He even acknowledge our prayers? Would He not rather ignore us as He first ignored the woman today? But she came to Him and knelt before Him showing that she, in fact, did recognize who He is and we must do the same in our own lives if our prayer to Him is to have any meaning whatsoever.
Lastly, the woman today shows us the importance of persistence in prayer. She cried out to Him once from a distance, then a second time she asked while kneeling before Him and a third time, even after being called a dog, she persisted. The number three is a number symbolic of perfection for Christians. For example, the Trinity of Persons within the Godhead is a sign of perfection for us. Therefore it is significant that the woman asks Jesus for help three times because this shows us she asked a perfect number of times: never giving up and never doubting. And, it even suggests to us that the demonstration of her faith to our Lord was perfect. This of course is acknowledged by our Lord when He said to her, “O woman, great is your faith!”
It is this faith that our Lord desires to see within each and every one of us. It is too often that we give up in our prayers because we don’t readily receive that which we request from our Lord. And of course sometimes we do not receive because we are asking for that which would do us no good. But for the other times, when we are asking for something worthy, like the conversion of a family member, we can too easily give up when we don’t receive it immediately. When you are tempted to give up in your own prayers then you need to remember the woman today who did not give up, or call to mind saints like St. Monica, who had to pray for her son for almost two decades before he converted.
I think we need to view today’s Gospel as an example of what great faith can do. Jesus gave to the woman today an opportunity to demonstrate the greatness of her faith and I believe that He gives each one of us the same opportunity in our own lives. But, if we give up at the first indication of failure, then how can we ever come to have that same faith in our Lord. You see, faith is not just saying we believe in Jesus. It is a demonstration of our belief in Jesus. Jesus once posed the question, “when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (St. Luke 18:8) As followers of Christ, we should sincerely desire to demonstrate that faith He is looking for in our lives. And the Canaanite woman today gives us one of the best examples of how we can show Him our faith.