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8/20/23 Homily: The Call of Gentiles

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]

Today, we wrestle with a difficult passage that can scandalize our modern sensibilities. You can find our gospel passage on page 923 of your Saint Augustine Hymnals.

Imagine if someone came up to me, and asked, “Father Rheo, could you help me?” And I responded with, “I don’t help dogs…”. Well, we hear something of that sort in our gospel today from the lips of Jesus, no less.

A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and asks him for help. “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Our Lord gives no reply. When she continues to plead with him, the disciples intervene. “Lord, send her away—she keeps pestering us,” (to paraphrase). And so, it’s then that our Lord speaks, but only to say: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Nevertheless, desperation for her daughter’s sake urges her on: “Lord, help me.” And it's here that we hear something quite shocking. Jesus responds, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Friends, make no mistake. When our Lord speaks of children here, he is referring to the Jews. And when he spoke of dogs, he’s referring to the gentiles; that is, non-Jews—including the Canaanites.

We’ve heard this language from our Lord before. Think of Matthew, chapter 7, verse 6, for example, when Jesus tells his disciples: “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw pearls before swine…"

What is going on here? In practice, we can often forget that the world was not as Christianized as it is today. The Christian values which have shaped western civilization, and therefore the world, were not so commonplace prior to Christianity. It wasn’t generally accepted that we all were created equal in the image and likeness of God. That’s a Christian teaching.

Christianity is so infused into the world, like yeast into dough, that it’s nearly impossible to think outside of Christian categories at a fundamental level. Like water is to fish, for those influenced by western civilization, Christianity undergirds our sense of our sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, mercy and brutality, having shaped tradition, culture, language, morals, literature, and more, whether we realize it or not. A fish doesn’t know it’s swimming in water. It simply does.

That’s why our Lord’s demeanor in our gospel passage can seem so incomprehensible to us today. It's in stark contrast with the Christian-influenced world we live in. We ought to remember that, when our God came to us, he came to us where we were at, at the time. At that stage in human history, there were sharp divisions between peoples—at an existential level.

In those days, every people and nation had their own god or gods, and their own values and understanding of right and wrong. The Jews believed that God promised them a Messiah, who was expected to be a worldly figure only, and not the eternal savior and God–man for all peoples as the gospel would come to proclaim in time.

The peoples back then didn’t fully understand the scriptures that the Messiah would be God himself. To save us, God condescended to enter into the world as it was, and he spoke accordingly. That’s the context of the dialogue we hear today between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. We hear Jesus speak according to the prejudices at the time.

“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Now, despite the harsh rhetoric, the woman doesn’t push back. She doesn’t storm away offended. She doesn’t cancel Jesus or vilify him. Rather, she has one goal. She has laser focus on her reason for being there, and she will not be dissuaded. She responds to our Lord, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

In other words: “Lord, I call you, Lord, because I acknowledge you as my master. I call you Son of David, because I want to belong to your people and be received into your culture, because my gods and my people cannot deliver my daughter from the power of a demon. Lord, I don’t seek to usurp the place of the Jews. I seek to take nothing away from your children. Even if I and my people are no more than dogs to you, remember that even dogs have a place at their masters’ table. I simply ask to eat what amounts to more than scraps from your bountiful excess. This is a very small thing that I ask of you, which costs you nothing. It’s a paltry favor I ask of you, and I have faith you can do this.”

Time and again, Jesus failed to encounter faith from his own people. But there are times when the faith of sinners, tax-collectors, and non-Jews surprises him greatly and moves his heart. The centurion who entreats him to heal his servant is another example of this. Today, we recognize this Canaanite woman as among their ranks.

When she insists to be in a relationship with Jesus—to have a place at his table no matter what, God makes an exception to his own plan of salvation and grants the Canaanite woman her desire.

God had always planned to integrate all nations and peoples into his holy people, as prophesied by Simeon: “…My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: A light to reveal you to all the nations, and the glory of your people, Israel” (cf. Lk. 2:30-32), a prophecy proclaimed by other prophets.

Our Lord himself would say to the Samaritan woman: “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… but… true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” and to the Pharisees, “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (cf. Jn. 10:16). Decades later, Saint Paul would dedicate his entire ministry to the gentiles, as we hear about in our second reading today. Thank goodness, because you and I are among the gentiles; presumably, none of us were Jewish before becoming Christian.

The Father always intended to reunite the lost sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve through his Son, but he integrates this Canaanite into his flock prematurely, ahead of his universal plan of salvation.

The woman in our gospel today gives us an example of how we ought to pray to our Lord when we greatly desire something. We’re called to seek the Lord, as she sought out Jesus. “Seek and you will find,” says the Lord. “Knock, and it will be opened to you,” (cf. Mt. 7:7). We’re called to entreat the Lord into relationship from a place of faith, not out of a sense of entitlement. Finally, when challenged in prayer, we’re called to remember that nothing is beyond God’s power, and our greatest hopes are no more than the tiniest of concessions that costs our Lord nothing. God bless you.

The Canaanite Woman asks for healing for her Daughter, by Juan de Flandes, c. 1500, oil on panel, Royal Palace of Madrid, Spain [Public Domain]


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