August 20, 2017
Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Before starting with today’s text, it is important to stop for a moment to consider the context of our passage. We’re in Chapter 15, which portrays a long and difficult reflection of Jesus on the traditions of the Pharisees and Scribes, especially in regard to purity. Obviously, Jesus distances Himself from these traditions, but never speaks a word against the Mosaic law or against the significance of God’s covenant and election: these are irrevocable. Perhaps, the issue is the outward observance of the Law, and Jesus cites a sentence of the prophet Isaiah that speaks of people who honor God with their lips but whose hearts are far from Him (Mt 15: 8).
Moreover, it seems that Jesus wants to emphasize that the danger of a blind observance to the law is not only an issue for the Pharisees, but for disciples of all times: the reproach is also addressed to His own disciples, in coming to grips with the effort to understand the new dimension of Jesus’ interpretation of the law (Mt 15:16).
After this lengthy discussion, Jesus leaves and goes to a foreign land, the regions of Tire and Sidon, to an “impure” place. And here he meets a Canaanite woman: a woman who could seem far away, but whose heart is really close to God. The woman insists that Jesus would heal her sick daughter and initially Jesus doesn’t even address a word to her (v. 23): only after the disciples interceded – who are more than annoyed by the woman’s cry – does He begin to dialogue with her. A difficult dialogue, in which Jesus seems to be unmoved: He did not come except for the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt 15:24).
At the end of this dialogue, we find that, to some degree, Jesus has shifted from his position: what’s occurring?
It transpires that this woman does not allow herself to be intimidated by this Jewish master that she seems so sure of her own boundaries: and she senses already that in Him there are larger boundaries, and that this man has already abolished so many barriers. He himself has been seen and adored, at His birth, by shepherds and by wise men, He called public sinners to follow Him, touched impure people, and talked about weeds that grow among the wheat …
Jesus therefore is not afraid, and this woman is not sensitive, she’s not offended by a reply that speaks of her as a puppy dog at the master’s table. So, with that daring freedom that for her alone arises from an unsolvable problem, she remains in dialogue, and this saves her.
She does not question the election of Israel, and agrees with Jesus that “it is true, Lord” (Mt 15:27) that the bread is first of all for children. But she does not stop there, and has the courage to go beyond Jesus Himself with a simple “yet”. She knows that the banquet to which the chosen people are called is so abundant to be, then, for all. And she knows that just one crumb of all this grace is enough to give life to anyone who needs it, inside and outside Israel’s boundaries.
Jesus remains in admiration of this great faith (Mt 15:28).
In the chapter following this episode, after the second multiplication of the loaves, Jesus rebukes the disciples for their little faith (Mt 16:8): they have seen so much bread, yet they are afraid to be without. This woman, on the other hand, believes that that bread will, in any case, still be enough, even if she only needed to see crumbs.
Then, returning to the context, we can say that it is not external observance of the law that makes a person pure, but rather one’s faith. The faith which recognizes that salvation is free, and being free is for everyone. A faith that is given to everyone, near and far, and born out of a need for salvation for those who alone cannot give life to themselves.
And this woman, with her great faith – humble and tenacious – is capable of opening up greater room for Jesus Himself; He left the confines of the house of Israel, and now opens this house to all: for them, for all, He will multiply the loaves of bread a second time.
In this dialogue, then, two humble people meet, able to learn from each other. And the greatness of Jesus, in this case, is to accept that a pagan woman knows how to reveal to Him something of herself still waiting to be known. Neither is Jesus afraid of this unexpected surprise, and He too can recognize within this outside-the-borders encounter the call to a turning point that will mark her life.