August 20, 2023
XX Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
The past few Sundays, the “Word” was found at the center of all the Gospel readings that we heard during the Liturgy.
In one passage, the Word was portrayed as a seed that grows in different soils and produces abundant fruit only if welcomed and buried deep in the soil. In another passage, the Word was portrayed as the good grain that does not fear the presence of other seeds, of other plants, but rather grows free from fear.
Later, the Gospel highlighted the Word of the Father, which was spoken on the mountain, as well as the resounding Word spoken amidst the storm. All assure us of the ever-present Word that illuminates our life. A Living and life-giving Word.
However, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is silent and seems to utter no words for a woman who approached Him crying out in distress.
Matthew made this clear by stating: "But he did not say a word in answer to her" (Mt. 15:23). To the extent that, after a short period, the disciples tired or perhaps embarrassed by the woman's cries, intervened, and asked Jesus to resolve the matter, if not out of mercy and compassion, at least to put an end to this hurdle.
Nevertheless, if we go to the end of the passage, we see that Jesus does not only speak to the woman, but he on top of that speaks encouraging words of appreciation and acknowledgment: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Mt. 15:28). Words that heal and save.
We can pause here and ask ourselves why Jesus was initially silent, and, What brought forth this Word, which seemed not fitting to be said to a non-Jewish, foreign woman?
Jesus is silent because the words he uses are not His own. Therefore, they cannot be uttered freely. This is shown in Chapter 12 of the Gospel of John, where Jesus makes it clear that he does not speak out according to his will, because his words are the words of the Father who sent him: “Because I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and speak” (Jn. 12:49. This reveals the importance of obedience, which is cherished by Jesus, even in the act of speaking out. Because salvation always comes through a word, said at the right time and place.
Subsequently, Jesus is silent because the history of salvation is subject to a specific place and time, which gradually expands: The history of salvation began with Abraham, and little by little it expanded and extended everywhere. It is not an immediate act. Because it requires the involvement of everyone, without discrimination, to enter a logic different from human logic: That logic of free giving to all. The road to this transformation is long and arduous. And Jesus is the first one to travel it.
This is the reason for Jesus' silence.
But what brings him out of silence? Why at that moment Jesus was able to find words to say to this woman? Jesus finds words for this woman because he hears her cry that included words, which drew his attention, and then he allows himself to be approached by her. As Jesus was listening, he discerned three postures hidden within the woman's words.
The first is that the woman is not afraid, and not intimidated.
The encounter was not easy, it was intimidating, as Jesus stressed the existing distance between him and her, yet she never feared. Indeed, just as Jesus was emphasizing the existence of a distance, she continuoues to draw near (Mt 15:25). The verb “To draw near” is used many times throughout the Gospels, and one that often has Jesus himself as its subject. Here, however, when Jesus remains far away, there is a woman who dares to draw near, without fear. And Jesus accepted it, remained close to her, and accepted that he is not the one having to take the first step. He welcomes the first step taken by a woman, a foreign woman, who demands to enter into his presence.
Second, her awareness of her unworthiness to receive what she is asking for. The Canaanite woman is aware that she cannot demand anything, but she nevertheless knows that she can remain expectant of everything because of God’s abundance gift: A gift so abundant that it overflows the table of the guests, making it enough for everyone.
Third, her perseverance. The woman approaches Jesus and does not leave until she has obtained what she asks and desires. Her endurance was full of confidence, which is born of great pain. This very pain is her strength.
All these attitudes have one common denominator: Faith.
At the end of the passage, we see that this woman's faith has achieved a momentous shift in Jesus' consciousness: Salvation belongs to anyone who hears the Word and recognize it as the only thing that has power to save, regardless of one's situations and background. Here, Jesus enlarged the boundaries of His Word, making space for all to hear and be saved.
This is a very significant Word, especially in our context of various kinds of closed boundaries and so-called privileges confined to a category of people.