The Second Sunday in Lent
The Gospel. St. Matthew 15. 21.
At that time; Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then she came and worshiped him saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to the dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
This is one of those Gospel passages that can be quite vexing on its surface. Indeed, it is one of those passages that some misguided folks have tried to use to disprove the Divine Nature of Our Lord, or at least to diminish the Merciful Nature of God, by making Jesus appear to be somewhat cruel. But these people miss the point entirely, for this story actually describes the opposite of what they contend; and it proves once again the Divine Mercy that God has shown to all of His Creation.
Now at first this account starts out like so many others that we have read in the Gospels; a woman comes to Our Lord seeking a miracle, and cries out to Jesus, making quite a scene in the process. But here we see two very significant differences from those other miracle stories. For one, this woman is not a Jew; Matthew tells us that she is from Canaan, and St. Mark further says that she is a Syrophonician (ie. possibly a person of “mixed race”). In either case, she is a Gentile, and for this fact alone, Jesus’ Jewish followers would have looked down on her; after all, she was not of the Faith.
Next comes the really perplexing part. She cries out to Our Lord for mercy, a plea that Jesus was not known to resist or ignore. But he appears to do just that (“But he answered her not a word“), and we can imagine that the Jews in attendance must have felt quite smug as Jesus seems to dismiss this Gentile. And when she persists in her plea, he responds with what we might consider to be an insult; “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to the dogs”.
The first time I saw this verse, I had to go back to make sure that I’d read it correctly. Did Our Lord just compare this woman, and by proxy all Gentiles, to dogs? Now to be sure, the Greek word the Gospel uses for “dog” actually refers to a household pet, rather than a street-roaming scavenger, but it is condescending nonetheless. And let me assure you that in the Middle East today this still is not a compliment!
Now I don’t know about you, but if I’d been insulted in such a manner, I would have been sorely tempted to walk away, no doubt doing so after issuing some pithy reply. But the woman makes no move to leave; rather she remains firmly planted before Jesus; and her reply implies that she understands the two things that Our Lord is doing here. He is testing her Faith, and he is bringing God’s Mercy to everyone.
“Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table”. In other words; “Yes, Lord: But I know that you are the Promised One, and that you have come to save us as well”. It is the perfect answer, and one that makes all the difference.
You see, this woman, this Gentile, came to Jesus already believing in his power. As she approaches, she calls him, “thou Son of David”, and she later refers to him as “Lord”. Before Jesus has done a thing for her, she already knows that he can, and that he will. And she displays this Faith for all to see, not only with her words, but also with her actions; “Then she came and worshiped him saying, Lord, help me”.
But her plea is not a selfish one, asking that she receive any particular favor. Rather, the woman seeks Our Lord’s help because of her love for her daughter who is ill. She comes to Jesus as a mother in great pain because of her child’s distress. She intercedes on her child’s behalf, much as our Blessed Mother intercedes on ours; because she knows that through Jesus all health, all life, proceeds; and she knows that this God whom Jesus talks about will care especially for children.
How overjoyed Our Lord must have been, to have found so great a Faith; a Faith that moved the woman to seek God; a Faith that grew in Jesus’ presence; a Faith that survived a test that included a seeming rebuke from Our Lord. A Faith that Jesus had not found among the Jewish priests or Pharisees or Sadducees or any of the religious leaders of Palestine. A Faith founded in love.
And as a result of that Faith, the woman receives her reward; “be it unto thee even as thou wilt”. Think about that for a moment; “be it unto thee even as thou wilt”. Seems pretty open-ended, doesn’t it? And yet, what is it that the woman asked for? “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David”. Mercy; The Mercy that will heal her daughter; The Mercy that will assure her Salvation; The Mercy that will guarantee that this same Salvation will be offered to all, both Jew and Gentile alike; The Mercy of God.
This is the same Mercy that is offered to all of us. It is the Mercy we cry out for during every Mass; “Lord, have Mercy upon us”. It is the Mercy that we plead for when we confess our unworthiness; “have mercy upon us most merciful Father”. It is the Mercy that we should know that we are most in need of during this Lenten Season, particularly as we contemplate the Passion and Death of Our Lord.
During Lent, we are all asked to undertake some discipline as a means of cleansing and purifying ourselves so that we may prepare for Holy Week, when we recall the suffering, Death, and Glorious Resurrection of Our Lord. I’ll wager that at least some of you have had occasion to refuse certain foods or drink because of the commitments you’ve made. My hope is that others outside of the Church will also have noticed, and that they will quiz you about it; “Why do you give up stuff for Lent”?
And it is also my hope that not only will you give the normal (and correct) reply about cleansing and your preparation to follow Christ in the Way of the Cross, but that you will also use the opportunity to tell these inquirers that it is because of your LOVE of God (and that only) that you sacrifice some earthly pleasure or desire. That it is the least we can do in light of what He has Sacrificed for us. That you will tell them of those whose Faith has persevered though it has been tested (and continues to be tested) by terrible afflictions and persecutions. That you will tell them of your own trials and tribulations, and how, in spite of them, you have remained steadfast in the Faith. My hope is that you will use the opportunity to tell these inquirers about the Mercy of God.
“And behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David” This is our cry and our plea during this season of Lent. “Then she came and worshiped him”. This is our attitude and our heartfelt desire during this season of Lent. “Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt”. And this is our hope and belief; that having shown our Faith, our Love, and our perseverance in the face of all tests and trials, that we too will receive the great Mercy of God.