The theme in today’s readings is God’s reaching out to all peoples. It starts with the recognition of some of the Hebrew prophets that people more than Israelites are in God’s concern and care. Next St Paul writes of his own mission to the ‘Gentiles’ and then a challenging story of Jesus.
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
This selection comes from the third part of the book which collected other prophets while keeping the title of the first Isaiah. The period is after the return from the exile in Babylon, when the hopes for an easily restored kingdom were fading. One emphasis of this particular writer is keeping the Law and acting righteously, as seen in the first part of today’s reading. The prophet retains the hope expressed by the earlier Second Isaiah that Gentiles will be brought to God. In his time, the prophet could only think of this as the non-Jews coming to live by the Law, and hence the mention of them offering their sacrifices in the temple.
The words ‘my house will be called a house of prayer for all people’ are spoken by Jesus when he drives the money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem, quoted in full in Mark with a shortened version in Matthew and Luke.
Psalm 66/67:2-3, 5-6, 8
The psalm responses carry on the theme of ‘all nations’ rejoicing in God’s rule.
Romans 11:13-15, 29-33
Last week we heard St Paul speak of his deep concern for the Jewish people who had not accepted Christ. The hope he has for them is repeated today with the added belief that God has not given up on his promises to the original chosen people. Now, however, there is an emphasis on pagans, and like the Psalmist Paul speaks of God’s mercy to all humans. In the opening lines, he mentions his own special apostolate to preach to the non-Jews or ‘Gentiles’ of the Roman Empire.
The odd expression of God ‘imprisoning’ all in disobedience is explained by Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J. as: ‘All, Jews and Greeks, have as groups been unfaithful to God, who makes use of such infidelity to manifest to all of them his bounty and mercy – to reveal just what kind of God he really is.’ Both groups receive God’s freedom from the weight of sin, and neither has any special cause for disdaining the other, for all is God’s loving gift.
If you are disturbed by the words of Jesus today, you may be comforted that many commentators are also. For example, R. T. France spends eight pages on this short section. We do not find any other scene where Jesus seem to ignore or to refuse someone seeking healing nor use personally insulting language. I have read through a variety of discussions and interpretations and find none totally satisfactory, but a range of possibilities does help understanding.
One thing most agree on is that Matthew had told this story in the light of the experience of the community he writes for. Comparisons with the version in Mark 7:24-30 bring this out. Matthew’s church is generally understood as a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. In other sections, he finds ways to show that the promises to the Hebrew people were ‘fulfilled’ – a favourite word in this gospel – and now are open to all. We can assume that the basic point to this selection is: faith brings salvation to everyone but it comes through the Jews as the first to hear him.
The first unwillingness to heal the daughter does of course end in a miracle, so the outcome meets our expectations of Jesus’ caring power. It is also noteworthy that Jesus commends the woman for her ‘great faith’ – the only person in this gospel whose faith is called ‘great’. (Compare the disciples at times reproached as of ‘little faith’ – as we heard last week.)
There are some other indications that he is writing more symbolically than historically. The woman is called a ‘Canaanite’ which was an outdated designation by that time, but in the past had indicated the people of the land who were bitter enemies of Israel. (Mark calls her a Syro-Phoenician.) The context is also helpful: in the previous verses which we have missed in the liturgy, Jesus engaged in a controversy with the Pharisees about what is really important – inner disposition or the minute traditions of strict behaviour (15:1-20). But while he has rejected such aspects of the Pharisee’s teaching and practice, his words now emphasise that he has not abandoned his mission to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’, Once before, Jesus had healed a non-Jew, the centurion who came to him on behalf of his son (8:5-13) and that prepares us for his making a second exception. And his gospel will end on the words ‘make disciples of all nations’.
What are we to make of the dialogue which begins with Jesus’ silence? She ‘shouts’ perhaps because as an outsider she does not want to approach the Jewish teacher, or it may indicate her anxiety. She uses a term kyrie in the Greek that can either mean ‘Lord’ or be a polite title ‘Sir’, as our reading translates it. Further she addresses him as ‘Son of David’, which indicates she knows something of the Jewish faith, and may have some belief herself in the idea of a Messiah. From the beginning, she shows absolute belief in the healing power of Jesus.
There is some humour in the following account, which begins with the disciples urging Jesus to get rid of her because she is annoying them. As France says, 12 strong men should be a match for one woman. Jesus tells them the limits of his ‘commission’ in words the woman would also hear. She persists and comes closer, ‘kneeling’ in a reverential position. He now engages in a dialogue which has variously been interpreted: some suggestions are as a way a teacher uses to lead another into fuller understanding (France) or typical Palestinian debate a ‘sparring match’, almost ‘banter’ (John L. McKenzie). Some like the idea that the only person to ‘win’ an argument with Jesus is a woman, and one who would have been considered an outsider. I note there are examples in the Psalms that reproach God as ‘silent’ to the prayers of the Psalmist, so there was a tradition Matthew would know.
Jesus speaks to her in the manner of a parable, using the word ‘dogs’, the traditional insult of Jews to pagans. She turns the parable back to him by pointing out that the dogs do eventually get fed ‘from the master’s table’. She wins her case and gets the approval of having ‘great faith’. However one decides to interpret the story – or even if one remains undecided – the refusal was far from Jesus’ last word on the subject. Nor was the rejection on his part final – he does what she asks and praises her.
If we consider the context of the previous debate with the Pharisees, we see the striking contrast that Jesus’ commended the foreigner for her trust while he condemned the Jewish leaders for putting petty rules before real righteousness. God will accept – heal and save – on the basis of faith and not pride in ritual performance.
We can take a lesson from the Canaanite woman: do we have ‘great’ faith in Jesus’ power to heal body and spirit, and do we persist in our prayer when it seems unanswered?