20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 17, 2014

You might have seen the reports in the news recently about the cartoon character mayhem occurring in New York City. One of the newest cottage industries in Manhattan is to pose for photographs with tourists while wearing a cartoon character costume. As the setting is Manhattan the cartoon characters are interested solely in money, and demand to be paid for appearing in the tourists’ vacation photos.

This enterprise became newsworthy when an Elmo, two Lady Liberties, the Cookie Monster and a Woody from Toy Story were arrested for harassing tourists in Times Square. In response to complaints from tourists, the NYPD started handing out fliers stating that tipping the ‘toons was not mandatory. A Spider Man was so annoyed at the threat to his income that he punched a policeman who was handing out the fliers.

The woman in the Gospel reading today wasn’t dressed in costume, but she was the sort of personality that was amenable to harassing others. She was such a pest that the apostles complained to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” (Matthew 15:23) The apostles, like the tourists in Times Square, seemed to think that any price was worth paying it if meant being allowed to continue their journey in peace.

The woman entreated, “Lord, help me.” (Matthew 15:25) Jesus responded, “It is not proper to take the children’s food and throw it to whelps.” (Matthew 15:26) Jesus’ response to the woman sounds rather harsh, but the surprising nature of Jesus’ words to the Canaanite woman shouldn’t discourage us from paying attention to them.

Dogs were considered unclean animals by Jews during Jesus’ lifetime; “unclean,” in this context, meant not kosher in the same way that pigs were considered not kosher. Dogs were considered unclean animals because of their eating habits. Dogs will eat anything, without discrimination. Jesus’ culture referred to gentiles, like the Canaanite woman in the story, as “dogs” because of gentiles’ eating habits. The Jews of Jesus’ time were scandalized that gentiles raised pigs for food. In the minds of Jesus’ co-religionists, gentiles would eat anything, without discrimination. Hence, the pejorative term “dogs” was applied.

There have been numerous attempts to take the sting out of Jesus’ words to this woman. Some of those attempts ignore Judean cultural detestation for dogs and gentiles; others interpret Jesus’ words as a test posed to the woman’s faith. Rather than getting caught up in anxiety over a comment that was an obvious insult, I would suggest that we consider the entire conversation between Jesus and the woman. The conversation didn’t end with Jesus’ insult. The woman was undeterred by Jesus’ reference to dogs; moreover, she used the reference against him. She responded, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” (Matthew 15:27) This was a witty retort worthy of Jesus himself.

Jesus’ conflicts with his detractors often became contests of wit. When some Sadduccees criticized him for preaching about the resurrection of the dead Jesus turned their argument against them, and undercut their criticism with a reference to a passage in the Books of Moses (which the Sadduccees revered as the only valid source of religious truth). (Matthew 22:31-32)

Those who tried to match wits with Jesus usually lost the contest. This Canaanite woman proved herself equal to the task. She did so by being a prophetic sign, comparable to the prophetic sign of the feeding of the crowd in the desert (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time). In this case, the woman’s actions were a living demonstration of what Jesus had been telling the apostles immediately before he had ventured into gentile territory.

Some Pharisees from Jerusalem had scolded Jesus’ disciples because of their lax practice of the kosher laws. They asked, “Why do your disciples disregard the tradition of the elders? They do not wash their hands when they eat their food.” (Matthew 15:2) In response, Jesus quoted a line from the prophet Isaiah. He said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:8)

Then, Jesus offered an explanation to the crowd present, “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.” (Matthew 15:11) Later, he explained his teaching to the apostles. “For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (Matthew 15:19-20)

As she was a gentile, the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel was considered defiled, ritually unclean and outside the bounds of God’s mercy. To all outward appearances she was about as far from God as one could be. Yet, she turned out to be very near to God because of her faith. She represented the kind of faith that Jesus sought, but found too seldom; to paraphrase Isaiah, her heart was not far from God.

The Canaanite woman’s persistence, in the face of rejection, was a living example of Jesus’ teaching about true righteousness. Her persistent faith was a prophetic sign that illustrated the difference between cheap talk and real faith. She addressed Jesus as “Lord” three times (Matthew 15:22,25,27), but it wasn’t the ‘honor from her lips’ that proved she possessed faith. Her faith was manifest in her persistence. The message of her example, and the message of Jesus’ teaching, was that faith is demonstrated by not losing heart in the face of adversity, by clinging to one’s trust in God.

If viewed as a conversation between a rabbi and a Canaanite, this passage of Matthew’s Gospel is nothing more than a series of insults and taunts. The combative nature of the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a reflection of middle eastern culture. In our culture, combativeness seems to be more associated with money than personal interaction. Authentic faith doesn’t require us to be combative (like the Times Square ‘toons), but it does require the kind of determination that the woman showed in pursuing her request.

If viewed as a living illustration of Jesus’ preaching, this conversation between Jesus and the woman depicts the kind of faith that Jesus expects from us. The woman’s dogged determination (pun intended), was a reflection of her attachment to Jesus and her expectation that Jesus would respond in kind to her loyalty. It is comforting to think that God might be as tenacious in responding to our prayers as the Canaanite woman was tenacious in asking for help. Her example provides us with a measurement for our own faith: we can expect from God the same degree of loyalty that we give to God.

The word “faith” can refer to the set of beliefs that define Catholicism; it can refer as well to an affirmation of those beliefs. However, the primary meaning of the word “faith,” in the teaching of Jesus, is personal attachment or loyalty. The conversation between the Canaanite woman and Jesus began with her confession of faith and request; it concluded with Jesus’ acknowledgment of her faith and a question posed to us, his disciples. Can we demonstrate the loyalty that is characteristic of those whose hearts are near to God?