CARDINAL SEÁN BRADY
ST PATRICK’S CATHEDRAL, ARMAGH
20TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
SATURDAY EVENING VIGIL – 16 AUGUST 2008
Every time I read or hear that Gospel – I am a little bit shocked. Shocked at the way Our Lord behaved towards the Canaanite woman. At first he refused to talk to her. When he did talk to her it was to remind her that she was an outsider – a Gentile – a pagan – not a Jewess and therefore not his first concern. Mind you, that was after the disciples had advised him to send her away or give her what she wants. She was following them, making all this noise and generally getting on their nerves. They wanted her to clear off.
• But she was a mother with a sick child.
• A mother who loved her sick child
• A mother who was determined to leave no stone unturned in her efforts to get help for the daughter whom she loved.
She is totally focussed. ‘Son of David’ she cried out. ‘Have mercy on me’. Jesus answered: ‘I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel’. Before his death the mission of Jesus was to gather all Israel – God’s chosen people.
Jesus did not want to go beyond the mission given to him by the Father. He would preach to his own people first. After all – it was they who were expecting a Messiah – and they might reasonably be expected to welcome the Messiah when he came.
The thing that shocks is that not only the disciples, but Jesus himself, seems at first, to exclude. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs” he says. When Jesus referred to her people as dogs he wasn’t the first to make use of this taunt. It was in common use among the Jews as a derogatory, disrespectful description of those who were not Jews. Jesus knew that well. The woman also probably knew it too. Jesus was not implying that he looked on Gentiles, pagans, as dogs.
Well what was he saying?
Perhaps he was saying, to this woman pleading for her daughter, that she was asking a lot. She was asking for the miraculous healing of her daughter. But more even than that – she was asking Jesus to give to her gifts that were, by right, not hers to ask. She had addressed him as Son of David – the King of Israel. There he was, the long-awaited Saviour of Israel – then Jesus, and the benefits of his kingdom belonged surely, firstly, to those who suffered in Israel, not to Gentile outsiders.
The woman is very quick to pick up the image in the answer given by Jesus and turn it to her own advantage – but without arrogance. Her courageous humility bests her. Perhaps it is right then, with this outsider who refuses to go away, that the real embarrassment of this story lies.
Remember St. Matthew was writing from the inside, from Israel, from Jesus our people. His audience is a Jewish people – the people who had been given the law and the prophets and the covenant. And yet, it was this same people who took smug delight in their way of life – their fidelity to the Sabbath etc., who failed to see, in Jesus, their long-awaited Saviour.
Then this outsider – this pagan – this probably poor woman with her sick daughter, simply refuses to go away from Jesus. She simply refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer. She flings herself down crying ‘Lord – help me’. She has a sense of honour and she wins the debate.
Even dogs are allowed a few crumbs from the children’s bread. ‘O woman – great is your faith’ what else could he say. What an immense compliment. Maybe that is the real scandal of today’s Gospel.
Great is the outsider’s faith – so great a faith in fact that it puts the rest of us to shame. What about our faith? What about those of us on the inside who are heirs to a century’s old faith.
I was in Nigeria two years ago and I saw people travel for days to attend a three hour ordination ceremony. And for some of us for whom the Mass and our faith is our birthright, how little it takes to keep us away from Mass. How little it takes to leave us skipping our prayers. But this pushy, stubborn determined pagan woman saw in Jesus the help her daughter desperately needed. Her persistence is an embarrassment to those of us who are more faith-healed. She was hurting – she saw and she simply refused to be packed off empty handed. ‘O woman, great is your faith’.
This woman reminds me a lot of St. Monica. She was married to a man called Patrick. He was described variously as a pagan, a nominal Christian – a bad tempered man. Her mother-in-law lived in the house and added to the difficulties. Monica overcame her own tendency to heavy drinking. By her patient perseverance Monica won over her mother-in-law and her husband. He was frequently unfaithful but never struck her or physically ill-treated her.
It is as the Mother of St. Augustine that Monica is especially famous. He was a wild man in his youth for many years. Once again her patient treatment of him over many anxious years, ended up in his conversion. She is regarded as the model of Christian mothers. When Augustine was young she had him enrolled for baptism. His irregular life-style caused her so much grief that, for a while, she refused to let him live in her house. But she soon relented when advised that maybe the time of his conversion had not yet come.
So she gave up arguing with him or asking others to do so. She turned instead to prayer, fasts and vigils – pilgrimages – I suppose. She was hoping that those would work where arguments had failed.
Augustine cleared off to Rome – from his native Africa – even deceiving his mother about the time of his departure so that he could travel. He went to Milan but the bold Monica followed and caught up and enlisted more help. To cut a long story short, he was baptised in 386 – at the age of 32 and he was totally and morally reformed.
Shortly before her death she told her son: ‘Nothing in this world now gives me pleasure. I do not know what there is left for me to do or why I am still here. All my hopes in the world are now fulfilled. All I wished to live for was to see you a Catholic and a child of Heaven – God has granted me more than this in making you despise earthy happiness and devote yourself to His service’. Another great woman of great faith.