Today's Gospel of the Canaanite woman (Mt 15:21-28) seems to be a very confusing Gospel. Not that it’s hard to picture what’s going on in this story, but what’s confusing is Jesus’ reaction to this woman. It seems to go against everything we know about Jesus. He seems rude, cold-hearted, and even offensive to the woman. Why does it seem like he reacts in this way?
Well, one reason we could say is that it was cultural at the time. Jewish rabbis would never speak to women in public, but not only that, the Gospel says that she was a Canaanite woman, in other words she was a pagan, and Jews and gentiles would seldom interact with each other. But, we know that can’t be the reason why it seems like Jesus reacts in this way because there are plenty of other examples when Jesus would go against cultural norms. He would always be going outside the boundaries.
So, what’s the deal? Why does it seem like Jesus doesn’t want to help this woman? If Jesus truly is God, wouldn’t he have wanted to help this woman right away? Everything that Jesus does is for a reason, and how he interacts with this woman can actually reveal a lot about how God deals with all of us.
This woman comes to Jesus with a request, and this request wasn’t for herself, and the request wasn’t something small or insignificant. Her request to Jesus was to save her daughter. And what was Jesus’ response? Silence. The Gospel says, “Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.” He was silent. He didn’t say a single word to this woman.
I’m sure we can all relate to this experience. How many times have we gone to God with a request, and not just for something selfish or minor, but with a pretty significant request, and all we get in response is silence?
Yet, the woman isn’t discouraged. She persists, enough to the point where the disciples ask Jesus to send her away. Now, if Jesus’ silence wasn’t painful enough, he gives this heart-breaking response, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It’s not just silence now, but rejection. And not for something she did, but for who she was, because she wasn’t a part of the house of Israel. She was being faulted for being a Canaanite.
That still doesn’t stop the woman. The Gospel says that she did him homage. In other words, she prostrated herself at the feet of Jesus, she was worshipping him, pouring her heart out to him, and with so much desperation she says, “Lord, help me.” Think of those times when you’ve poured out your heart to God, with that same desperation, and praying, “Lord help me.”
But even that wasn’t enough. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” If silence wasn’t enough, if clear rejection wasn’t enough, now it seems like there’s insult and humiliation. Surprisingly, without responding with any kind of offense, not saying to Jesus, “How dare you!” we have this remarkable response from the woman, “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” And now, finally, delighted with her response, Jesus praises her faith and grants her request.
Again, like I said, this is a confusing story. What do we make of this? Jesus didn’t need to be convinced. Jesus didn’t need a reason to grant her request. What Jesus is clearly doing is testing this woman. He’s testing her so that she would come to know how great her faith really is.
If Jesus were to simply grant her request right away, would she really have appreciated her faith in God? It was in this exchange with Jesus that allowed her faith to grow, to have such a strong and determined faith that nothing would break it, not even silence or rejection or insult.
If God were to grant everything we asked Him right away, how would we actually grow in our faith, to learn what it means to have that same determined and unwavering faith? We wouldn’t. Jesus often doesn’t answer our petitions right away, because if he did, we’d risk becoming “spiritually spoiled.” We would pray to God with an attitude of self-righteousness, thinking as if somehow God owes me something. Sometimes silence, rejection, even humiliation is needed to help expand and purify our faith, to show that persistence and humility.
Being tested is not always a bad thing. Needing to be persistent is not a bad thing. God knows what we need, especially to help us to grow in our faith. And so our response when we might feel like this is happening to us is not discouragement and to walk away. No, our response is like this woman, that we can also come to know how great our faith in God really is.
Father Adam Park grew up in the Washington, DC area. He discovered his vocation to the priesthood while on retreat during his senior year in high school. Being ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington, he has served in different assignments throughout the archdiocese.