20 August [20th Sunday in Ordinary Time]
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.
In last Sunday's gospel reading, Peter's prayer was condensed into three words, "Lord, save me!" In today's reading the Canaanite woman's prayer is exactly the same. Peter was the Lord's chief disciple, the Canaanite woman was a pagan; but their prayer was the same, and the Lord responded to both.
In today's reading, however, he appeared rather reluctant to help the woman. "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" meant "I was sent to help Jews, not Canaanites." To make it worse, he added "It is not fair to throw the children's food to dogs." The 'children' were the Jews, "the children of Israel." The 'dogs' were foreigners. It was a Jewish epithet for all foreigners at that time.
It is not easy to know how his mind worked at that moment. Was he just repeating the prejudices of his own people against foreigners? It was his first and only time away from his own country. Or was he just tired, as he often had cause to be? Was he protecting his boundaries, something we all understand to be necessary at times? Or was he testing her perseverance?
All such is only speculation. The gospel text is silent on it. What is stated in the text is that he granted her request and even praised her faith. How could a pagan be said to have faith? Clearly, faith must mean more than being able to rattle off the right words on all aspects of Christian teaching. Not even his closest disciples could do that at the time. From that point on, the great divide would no longer be between Jews and non-Jews, but between those who had faith and those who had not. On another occasion too he praised the faith of a pagan; "nowhere in Israel have I found such faith," he said to a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:10; Luke 7:9). And to his disciples he once said, "Whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:38).
However he also said something that appears opposed to this last quotation. "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters" (Luke 11:23). But notice that he said "with me." He did not say “with you.” Once a group of people get together they begin to be exclusive. Even a group of disciples can be exclusive in a way that Christ himself would never be. Notice too that the first statement (Mark 9:38) is addressed to his own disciples and refers to the work of outsiders, while the second (Luke 11:23) is addressed to outsiders and refers to his own work. There are many who claim to be working with him - good Christians, good Catholics - but who have nothing of his great mind and Spirit, nothing of his compassion and love, and who may be surprised to know that they are working against him.
Much good work is done for Christ outside the fold. In its document on non-Christian religions, the Second Vatican Council stated: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people." (Nostra Aetate, 2). In our own time too there are movements without number for the development and liberation of humanity. If they are not against Christ they are with him, and their followers are our brothers and sisters.
On 24 January 2002 Pope John Paul II welcomed more than 200 leaders of the world's religions to Assisi to pray together for peace and to do their part to fend off "the dark clouds of terrorism, hatred (and) armed conflict.” It was a courageous prophetic gesture and a sign of hope for the future of our anguished world.
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