Our Gospel today when it is read often sounds rather harsh. Who is this Jesus in the Gospel who ignores the Canaanite woman and compares her to dogs? It is difficult to reconcile this image with the loving Jesus we see elsewhere in the Gospel. But context and a more careful reading of the passage resolves these issues.
Our Gospel today comes from Matthew 15:21-28. Earlier in the same chapter Jesus has an encounter with the Scribes and Pharisees who came from Jerusalem. They complain to him that his disciples did not follow the tradition of washing their hands before they ate in accordance with the custom of the oral traditions. Jesus replies by showing them that they transgress the Law of God through following a certain interpretation of the oral tradition. He says to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Their hearts were neither in accord with the Law nor open to receiving the Gospel of Jesus.
Afterward, Jesus instructs his disciples about true defilement of the heart. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” The next verse of the Gospel according to St. Matthew begins the section we heard today.
A Canaanite woman cries out to him for mercy, calling him Lord and Son of David. Jesus, who so often reacts with compassion in the Gospel, remains silent and, so it would seem, ignores her. His disciples come to him to beg Jesus to send her away. Perhaps when she received no response from Jesus, she started crying out to them for help. Notice, though, that they don't ask Jesus to help her, they ask him to get rid of her! And Jesus says to them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Let's read that again with an emphasis on “I.” I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Might that emphasized “I” imply something about the disciples? I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but you will be sent out into the whole world. The disciples had heard Jesus quote Isaiah the prophet in the encounter with the Scribes and Pharisees, after which Jesus gave them a teaching about cleanness of heart. But what about our first reading today which is also from Isaiah: “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants … their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” And so a Medieval Gloss on the text reads: “He did not answer so that the disciples might ask for her.” Jesus is expanding his teaching on the heart and what is at the heart of true religion.
The woman clearly grasped something of the sort happening either in the exchanges or in the tone, because although Jesus has not spoken to her yet, “she came and did Jesus homage, saying Lord, help me.” Now, at last, Jesus speaks to her, “It is not fair to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Isn't our first reaction to think, “How rude!” Now the term “dogs” is in the original text κυνάρια, which is a diminutive of dog. So it can be understood to mean little dog or even puppy. And if we read the text with a gentle tone rather than as a rebuke, it softens it to the point where it can even suggest a tone that, while testing the woman, almost encourages her to continue. And just so the woman continues: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” She does not contradict his use of the word. She continues to address him as Lord. She even says the children are the masters. She humbles herself and continues to beg for mercy from him. “Then Jesus answered her, 'O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.' And the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.”
Now we are in a better position to appreciate the depths of this Gospel passage. We can begin to see the Jesus of compassion that we know so well. Why did Jesus draw out this experience? Certainly, it was important enough that the Apostles remembered it and the Holy Spirit inspired St. Matthew and St. Mark to include it. Jesus knew the hearts of the Scribes and Pharisees in his previous encounter. He knew the hearts of his disciples, and he knew the heart of the woman. He also knew, beforehand, that he would eventually grant to the woman her request. He teaches the disciples that his mercy is for everyone without exception. He elicits faith from the woman and teaches her to come to him in adoration and and to persevere with trust in his ability to free her daughter from her slavery to evil. Through the woman, he teaches his disciples and us to do the same. A Medieval Gloss concludes: “And if the Lord delays the salvation of a soul at the first tears of the supplicating Church, we ought not to despair, or to cease from our prayers, but rather continue them earnestly.” He may, like he did with the Canaanite woman, first elicit faith from us and teach us to humble ourselves in order to open our hearts to the gift of his mercy. He teaches us in this Gospel that we shall obtain His Heart if we cry out to him with persistence. The difficulty isn't in the generosity of the Divine Giver but in the receptivity of the one asking.
The compassion, mercy and love of the Sacred Heart of our Savior cannot resist the misery and supplications of the sinners who worship him, and throwing themselves on his mercy, beg him for help and release from the sins and evil that hold them captive. The sinner, who in humble adoration of his Sacred Heart, begs to be healed never fails to capture his loving Heart. A little book called The Way of Divine Love, which records the visitations of Jesus to Sr. Josefa Menendez of the Society of the Sacred Heart, contains these passages:
“My Heart takes great comfort in forgiving. I have no greater desire, no greater joy, than when I can pardon a soul.”
“I will make known that the measure of My Love and Mercy for fallen souls is limitless. I want to forgive them. It rests Me to forgive. I am ever there, waiting, with boundless love till souls come to Me. Let them come, and not be discouraged. Let them fearlessly throw themselves into My arms!”
“I am Love and desire only love. O, if souls only realized how I wait for them in mercy. I am the Love of all loves, and it is My joy to forgive.”
Our Savior waits with longing to give us his mercy. Like the Canaanite woman we should never cease to beg him for it, since in faith we shall obtain what his Love already wishes to grant us.