SUNDAY OF THE TWENTIETH WEEK IN ORDINARY TIME
“O woman, great is your faith!”
Is 56:1, 6-7; Rom 11:13-15, 29-32; Mt 15:21-28
In today’s Gospel a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and pleads with him to heal her daughter. However, the Lord gives the impression of ignoring her, and continues on his way. He even conceals himself behind the cultural prejudices of the time, and the present state of religion, in which the fullness of the saving will of God has not yet been shown to burst beyond the boundaries of the Jewish people: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” But she cries out: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” And then Jesus replies, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
In his actions here, Christ is testing the attitudes and dispositions of all persons involved: first, he is testing the faith of his followers. Slowly, he is preparing their minds to recognize that the election of Israel by God as his firstborn son must now spread out to all the nations. The faith of the woman shows them this, and Christ’s openness to welcome her and offer her healing, after first testing her. We are amazed at this woman’s persistence, at the depth of her faith which exceeds that of many who have grown cold in the religion of Israel. Indeed, as Saint Paul says in the second reading, the rejection of Israel has opened the way to salvation for the Gentiles. Yet God has so ordained that, through the Gentiles’ acceptance of the Gospel, all of Israel will in the end be saved. The ways of God are mysterious. We are all a part of the saving plan of God, this plan in which he invites us to partake in his own divine life and never ceases to seek us out, even in our infidelity, sin, and rejection of him.
Practically, what can we learn from this event for our own daily lives? Let us focus on the persistence in faith and prayer to which our Lord invites us. We can see in the Canaanite woman a model of true faith and trust in God’s will to save. She is intensely aware of the healing that she needs for her daughter, and she is willing to go to any lengths to attain it. And precisely by “putting her off” Jesus calls forth a deeper faith and desire from within her. Her desire is purified and deepened. Do we not in our own lives often give up on receiving the healing that we and our loved ones so deeply need? There are so many wounds within our hearts, wounds of the past, internal struggles in the present, and circumstances with which we feel it almost impossible to cope. We have asked the Lord to heal us, to lead us to a place where we can find peace and joy in our daily lives. But it seems that he is far from us, that he is discarding our prayer and treating us like dogs who are unworthy to eat at the table of the children.
Does the Lord not desire our healing? Perhaps we begin to doubt it. Maybe we think that we are really dogs, and not beloved children of God. We may suppose that we are just meant to suffer and “offer it up” without finding the joy that we so deeply desire. This pain and sorrow in our life, it is just to be our lot. Our faith in the Lord’s desire to heal us grows weak, and our life begins to grow numb. We find ourselves simply “surviving” rather than pressing forward with hope, with a creative fidelity renewed each day. But creative fidelity is precisely what the Canaanite woman shows, and what Jesus calls forth within her through his actions and through his grace at work within her heart. This kind of fidelity can only be born of hope, and can be expressed only in the moment by moment acceptance of life.
Creative fidelity: this is approaching each new day with the desire to encounter the Lord, to receive anew the gift of his love given to us mysteriously in the circumstances of our daily lives. This is the love that heals, the love that saves. Even if externally life remains marked by suffering, the most essential, central healing, the healing of the heart, is never withheld by God. And as we receive this healing ever more deeply, all the other aspects of our lives begin to radiate with a mysterious light, a mysterious peace and joy.
Do we believe this? Perhaps one of the hardest things for us to believe is that God loves us, that he sees immense beauty within us, a beauty that draws his Heart towards us unceasingly. And, if he really loves us in this way, it is most certain that what he desires more than anything else is our happiness. Yes, he desires us to be happy. And such happiness is not only given in the next life, in heaven. There, of course, it will reach its awesome fullness, when every sorrow disappears and every tear is wiped away. Nonetheless, in the very concrete reality of our daily lives, here and now, God draws near to us and walks with us.
The simple suggestion to “offer it up” often misses the point of all of this. It manifests a stoic attitude that refuses to face the real problems, the problems of the heart, a heart which cannot cease yearning to be loved, yearning to know the happiness of love that is deeper than all else. There is a beautiful mystery that those who have suffered deeply, and have encountered God in their suffering, begin to understand: that suffering is redemptive when it is itself redeemed.
Meaning itself must be found in suffering, and Christ never ceases to offer this meaning to us by his very presence. Through the weakness of suffering, I come to understand that I am not defined by what I have, nor what I do or what I attain. I am not anything external to me, these things by which I have so often tried to define myself. No, I am simply what I receive from the Father; indeed, I am this gift from the Father. I am simply a beloved child, ever held by him in love. This is my identity.
Therefore, I come to know myself precisely in this act of acceptance from the Father. Ultimately, this is the meaning of my life, and the reality which allows me to live, suffer, and die with peace and joy: receiving the gift of God’s love for me, and, in this love, becoming a gift for others and a gift back to God.
In this way, as hope is born in the heart through the gift of God’s love, healing can come, both internal and, if it is the Lord’s will, external as well. Indeed, here the very suffering that persists in our lives, suffering that, in this broken world, will never entirely disappear, becomes a means by which we are more deeply healed, and by which our lives can become instruments of healing for our brothers and sisters. This should be clear when comparing those who suffer in despair and rebellion with those who, in and through their suffering, have grown into dependency on God and have surrendered themselves to him. In their very suffering, also, the have found themselves being given, mysteriously, in the likeness of Christ, for the good of others.
But, even more deeply, regardless of the way that someone is subjectively dealing with their suffering, however much they are struggling to come to terms with it, the truth is that Christ is already there, having redeemed all suffering and made it a place of encounter with himself. He is carrying them in love, even if they do not know it.
For he has gone before us on this path, and never ceases to remain here with us, bearing the marks of his Passion made glorious through the victory of divine love. He is the Son who has received himself, and eternally receives himself as a gift from the Father, within the gift of the Father himself that he wholeheartedly welcomes as his perfect and abiding joy. And, in his humanity, this acceptance reaches its culmination in his Passion and Death, and in the Resurrection which is simply the manifestation of the love at work in the events that precede it…the Love that is stronger than suffering and death.