20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 15:21-28
But the [Canaanite] woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
Often enough, when preaching on this Gospel, priests and deacons will say something incredibly foolish like, “Jesus didn’t realize just how persistent this woman could be!” Or, “This Gentile woman taught Jesus that he wasn’t sent only to the house of Israel, but to all people.”
It is really quite absurd to think that Jesus was taught anything by anyone (cf. Summa Theologica III, q.12, a.3) – though he did obviously learn through observation, he was never the “disciple” or “pupil” of another.
How much more absurd it is to think that our Lord would not know his own mission! That he would be ignorant of his role as universal mediator of salvation for all peoples! Far be it from any to say that our Savior did not know that he was sent to save the Gentiles also. Far be it from any to say that our Savior did not know he was going to heal this woman’s daughter.
What is perhaps most disappointing about this all-too-common take on the Gospel passage (according to which Jesus is taught by the woman) is that it misses the essential thrust of the event: It is not that our Lord is learning from the woman, rather the good Savior is teaching her (and us) how to pray.
The woman is ignored
The woman is twice rejected by our Lord. Even before that, she had been ignored for some time. As the Canaanite woman calls out to Jesus, he at first did not say a word in answer to her. Perhaps you have felt this sometimes – have you ever prayed and prayed, and it seemed as though our Savior were not listening? Remember, Matthew does not say that the Lord “did not listen to the woman”, but he only states Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. In other words, the good Lord does most certainly hear her prayer (and yours), but he refuses at first to answer. He is listening, but he delays his response.
The first rebuff
When the Savior does respond, it is to rebuff the woman: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is as though he said to the woman, “You are a Gentile, but I am sent to the Jews. Depart, therefore, and do not ask any good thing from me.” It is a strong rebuff indeed! Have you ever felt that Jesus said this to you in prayer? Does it ever seem that our Lord will not hear your prayers, because you are a sinner and unworthy of him? Follow then the example of the Canaanite woman!
The first repulsion does not faze the woman in the least, but rather she came and did Jesus homage. It is as though she says, “Lord, I know that I am not worthy to receive your blessings, for you are God the Almighty and I am a mere creature (and, what is more, I am a sinner).” Worshiping Christ, she humbles herself before him – a contrite and humble heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. So too, must you humble yourself before your God; for the proud are displeasing to God, but he loves the humble servant.
The divine insult – “You are a dog”
And so, in response to the woman’s great humility and perseverance, the Lord answers her request a second time: It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs. How good and loving our Savior is! It is as though he says to the woman, “Good, you are learning humility. But humility is gained not so much when you humble yourself, as when I humble you through humiliations. You then, I say, you are a dog!”
This last rebuke is much stronger than the first. Our Savior calls the woman a “dog” after the manner of the Jews, who considered the Gentiles “dogs” on account of their idolatry. This accusation, this name-calling, would prick the woman in a most sensitive place: Here she is, a Gentile woman among a crowd of Jews; and our Savior humiliates her with this most demeaning term, one which was in the hearts of all.
Have you felt like this? Does our Lord give you humiliations to bear? Perhaps it seems that he rejects your prayers, when he humiliates you so – but remember this Gospel, imitate the example of this Canaanite “dog”.
Perseverance in prayer
Hear the commentary of Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide, on the Canaanite woman’s response, Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters – “She means to say, ‘It is altogether true what Thou sayest, 0 My Saviour. I acknowledge that I am a worthless dog, and not worthy that the children’s bread should be given to me, who am a Gentile. Yet the dogs and the curs (in Greek the word is the same, κυνάρια) are wont to eat the crumbs of bread which fall from the tables of their master’s children. Nourish me then as Thy dog. I cannot leave my master’s table. You cannot drive me from Thee either by rough words or by blows. I will not leave Thee, until thou give me what I ask. Give me therefore, 0 most merciful Lord, only a crumb, give me this least favour of my daughter’s health. Let this one crumb fall among us Gentiles, and I will gather it up.’ She presses Christ prudently, convincingly, and yet modestly by His own words; and by her humble faith and reasoning conquers Him willing to be conquered by her prayer, says S. Chrysostom.”
The woman does not reject the humiliation which Christ has given her. Rather, she knows that, if only she should embrace this humiliation (being called a “dog”), the good Savior will allow her also to be filled with his graces. To spurn the Cross is to spurn grace. But to embrace the Cross is to embrace the grace of Christ.
Jesus is teaching – Learn from him
Through it all – indeed, before even the woman began to ask – Jesus was moving her and inspiring her by his hidden graces. It was our Savior who had allowed the daughter to become ill. It was our Savior who inspired the woman to come to him and call out. It was our Savior who allowed the disciples to rebuff her, but he still sustained her with his grace. It was our Savior who gave her the strength to persevere, even when rejected. Through it all, the grace of Christ sustained this woman’s prayer – and thus, because it was all grace, her prayer was answered.
The rebuffs and the humiliations were needed so that her prayer would be nothing of herself. She needed to become less and less so that Christ could be more in her. Finally, when she cries out “I am a dog”, her prayer is clearly no longer from her, but is only from Christ. This is the mystery of prayer – it is always Christ praying in us, through his Spirit. We pray, Christ prays, the Spirit prays; and it is one prayer, which will surely be answered.
The 10 characteristics of perfect prayer
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide gives us the characteristics of Christian prayer: “Contemplate the ideal of perfect prayer, and imitate it. This woman of Canaan teaches us to pray.
1. With great humility, in that she acknowledges herself to be a dog.
2. With faith, because she calls Christ the son of David, i.e., the Messiah, the God and Saviour promised to the Jews.
3. With modesty because she sets before Christ the right of dogs and her own misery; yet does she not draw from thence the conclusion that Christ should heal her daughter, but leaves that to Him.
4. With prudence, in that she takes hold of Christ by His own words, and gently turns His reasoning against Himself, into an argument for obtaining her desire.
5. With reverence, with religion and devotion, because she made her supplication on her knees.
6. With resignation in that she did not say, ‘Heal my daughter,’ but ‘help me,’ in the manner which shall seem to Thee best.
7. With confidence, because although a Gentile, she had a firm hope that she would be heard by Christ.
8. With ardour.
9. With charity, in that she made intercession for her daughter, as if she were anxious for herself, saying, help me.
10. With constance and perseverance, in that she persisted when she was twice repulsed and became yet more earnest in prayer.
“Truly says Chrysologus (Serm. 100.) ‘Deservedly is she adopted as a daughter, and raised to the table, who in her humility placed herself beneath the table.’ S. Laurence Justinian, the first Patriarch of Venice imitated this woman, who prayed thus to God when he was at the point of death. ‘I dare not ask for a seat among the happy spirits, who behold the Holy Trinity. Nevertheless Thy creature asks for some portion of the crumbs of Thy most holy table. It shall be more than enough for me, 0 how much more than enough! if Thou wilt not refuse some little place to this Thy poor servant beneath the feet of the least of Thine elect.’”