Living Baptismally, pt 9: Sharing God’s Mercy with All

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 15), 2020.

The thing to immediately notice in our passage from Saint Matthew today is the tension evident between the disciples and Our Lord Jesus. “Send her away, for she is crying after us,” they implore Jesus. But Jesus does not send her away, but rather listens to her, talks with her, and eventually praise her great faith, so much so that we are left with the impression that it was her great faith that healed her daughter from the demon, indeed exorcised her of the demon. It is Our Lord’s behavior towards the Canaanite woman that indeed shut up the noisy disciples, which is consistent with the fact that this episode with the Canaanite woman is directly preceded by Our Lord verbally tussling with the scribes and Pharisees, who constantly accused Jesus of trespassing the Law, and constantly tried to trick Jesus into outward contradiction of the Law, so that they could put dents into the wide popularity that Jesus enjoyed throughout the twelve square miles of Palestine that Jesus visited during his public ministry. Noisy scribes and Pharisees, noisy disciples, hardened hearts abounding—Our Lord teaches us the value and necessity of withdrawing from the noise of life occasionally so as to be able through prayer to transcend it and rest in the Father Almighty, and then return to the fray as the tides of the water return to the hard rocks of the shore. For as Jesus spoke to the prophet Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

It is trying to reach a kind of conversational prayer that is the way to understand the dialogue between Jesus and the Canaanite woman—a kind of mystagogical prayer that draws us deeper into the mystery of Christ. But that not self-evident in a plain reading of the text from Saint Matthew. After the disciples attempt unsuccessfully to command Jesus to send her away, He says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me. And He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answer, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” It sounds on a plain reading that Jesus is being unloving at first and exclusionary; but that violates basic doctrine about Jesus, that His very nature is love and that His Mission from the beginning is always to all peoples. How then to understand this properly?

In this dialogue with the Canaanite woman, it is not Our Lord who is being taught about compassion and love, but rather the disciples and their hardened hearts. Both of the seemingly inflammatory statements by Jesus—the first, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and the second, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”—reflect the very exclusionary attitude of the Jewish religion of Jesus’s day, as well as the centuries prior. The Jews had been looking for a political messiah to restore political power to them and allow them to complete the rebuilding of the Temple and thereby overthrow their occupiers, the Romans. The last thing they wanted was a Messiah for all peoples Whose very showing of divine power was to die on the tree of the Cross—and be a voluntary failure in the eyes of the world. But it was always the plan of Jesus to show the world what it means to be God by the way He died as a human being.

In other words, Jesus used this moment with the Canaanite woman to teach not her but the disciples words He had taught to Isaiah centuries before: “Foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, to love the Name of the Lord, and to be His servants, every one who keeps the Sabbath, and does not profane it, and hold fast My covenant—these I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer.”

Brother and sisters, our prayer serves all people. Let us consecrate ourselves to this Mission given to us in our Baptism, that the mercy of Our Lord may be experienced by all people in their daily life and work.