This Sunday is the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings can be found here. The Gospel is about the fascinating story of Jesus traveling outside of Jewish territory, something he very rarely does. There he has an interesting encounter with a Canaanite woman (Canaanites were historical enemies with the Jews) who is asking to be healed.
Jesus appears to be dismissive and even rude to the woman, referring to her as a “dog”. Many commentators indicate that in this exchange Jesus may have been using joking sarcasm to make a point to his Jewish disciples. We know from the story that the woman felt comfortable continuing the dialogue with Jesus and that Jesus ultimately healed her. The juxtaposition of the mocking language used by Jesus’ disciples and the reaching out of Jesus to heal this “outsider” indicates that although humans think in tribal terms, God’s love makes no such distinction. As such, all of us are called reach beyond our narrow tribal loyalties and share God’s love to those outside our “clan”.
“So, why was Jesus so unreceptive to the woman in the beginning? The context of this Gospel gives us the answer. The majority of Matthew’s audiences are converts to Christianity from Judaism. This passage reflects an understandable presumption from this group that Jesus’ message was meant only for the Jews. This community also included Gentiles, converts from paganism. These two groups, who were so different in their religious backgrounds and culture, were united in their profession of the Christian faith and became the new People of God.The manner in which this encounter unfolds depicts this struggle. Jesus, as a Jewish male, is at risk of becoming “unclean” by speaking with a Canaanite woman. Yet through his conversation with this “untouchable” woman, we witness a change in Jesus’ responses. It is here that we come to recognize the inclusive love intended for the Jews was meant for the Gentiles as well.“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matthew 15: 28).It’s the intensity of the Canaanite woman’s conviction and the passion of her faith that enabled Jesus to change his perception in the end.So what is Matthew challenging us to learn through this episode? Should we question the way we listen to some voices and not others? Are there certain people or messages that are difficult for us to hear? If we take this story to heart,the witness of Jesus urges us to expect the call to conversion in some of the most unlikely places, and to be attentive when we hear it.