To read the texts click on the texts: Isa 56:1, 6-7; Rom 11:13-15, 29-32; Mt 15:21-28
It took Winston Churchill three years to get through the eighth grade, because he couldn’t pass English. Ironically, many years later he was asked to give the commencement address at the Oxford University. His now famous speech consisted of only three words: “Never give up!” While this theme of perseverance and never giving up is surely one of the themes of the readings of today, another theme that also comes out powerfully is the movement from particularity to the universality of God’s love.
There is no doubt that Jesus appears to be speaking to the Canaanite woman in the Gospel text of today in extremely harsh terms. He disregards the heartfelt and sincere plea for mercy made by the woman, and makes it clear that his mission, at this time, is for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and even likens the woman to a dog. Some have attempted to soften this harshness by suggesting that Jesus’ retort to the woman was said with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips or that Jesus did not mean stray dogs but house pets. However, nothing in the text warrants such interpretations and when compared with the similar incident in Mark, which allows for a mission to the Gentiles following the mission to the Jews, the retort of Jesus in Matthew is harsher, leaving no apparent scope for a Gentile mission: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
The Jews are the children and the Gentiles are the dogs. The epithet “dogs” for Gentiles had derogatory connotations. Dogs roamed the streets scavenging for food, and the Jews considered them unclean animals. The Gentiles cannot get what belongs to the Jews. Thus Jesus not only flatly refuses the woman’s request; he also seems to insult her.
The woman, however, will neither be excluded nor allow herself to be insulted. She will persevere and will overcome. She will keep on keeping on. She will neither give up nor give in. She meets Jesus’ initial stony silence with more pleading. She drowns out the disciples’ request for Jesus to send her away with her own repeated requests for Jesus to have mercy. She factually negates his exclusive mission to the Jews when she, a Gentile calls him Lord and worships him. Finally, she cleverly turns his own maxim supporting exclusivism into an illustration of inclusivism in salvation. Accepting the designation “dogs” for Gentiles, she turns it to the Gentiles’ advantage. “Yes, Lord,” she counters Jesus, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” In her maxim the dogs and the children both eat. And they eat simultaneously. She bests the Matthean Jesus: She denies both exclusivism and sequential priority in salvation based on ethnic identity. The Gentiles can have at least the crumbs of salvation if not the bread, and they can have it now. She challenges Jesus to rise up to a new, ethnically broadened sense of his mission and his Lordship. The woman’s brash courage actually “converts” Jesus. Though Jesus had limited his mission to the sons and daughters of Israel, here he crosses this self-imposed boundary to bring merciful healing to a Gentile. The woman brings him to the full implications of his mission.
This gospel passage thus reveals that Jesus’ understanding of God’s saving work entails both the particular and the universal. He knew that this woman was a Canaanite; he knew that he was a Jew and had been sent to Israel yet this did not exclude the limits of God’s gracious work in and through him. He also knew that God’s redemptive work reached across the boundaries of difference without necessarily obliterating them. God in Christ did not make this woman and her daughter into something other than Canaanites, but in response to the woman’s faith he did bring healing to her daughter.
This is reiterated by Paul in the second reading of today who, writing to the Romans, asserts that he who is, “an Israelite himself, a descendant of Abraham”, expresses hope for Israel because “salvation has come to the Gentiles”. When either Gentiles or Jews, women or men, are saved, they remain Gentiles or Jews, women or men, yet they are saved in the same way i.e. through faith. And, this salvation is the result of God’s grace and mercy which is blind to differences of ethnicity, gender, or nationality.
The fact that such differences to not constitute a barrier to the love of God do not mean, however, that God’s saving work is meaninglessly indiscriminate. Those whom God welcomes into his “house of prayer for all nations” are those who “bind themselves to the Lord… to be his servants.” They are vessels of God’s justice. As people of faith hey hear the Lord in the depths of their hearts calling them to, “do what is right.” These are people like the Canaanite woman, who persevered in faith in the only hope she had.
The call and challenge to us today is to continue to persevere, even if at times it seems that our prayers are not being answered and that there seems to be no solution in sight. It is also an invitation to realize the inclusive nature of God’s unconditional and magnanimous love.