Sunday reflection: Matthew 15:21–28

posted at 10:01 am on August 17, 2014 by Ed Morrissey

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 15:21–28:

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “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.

“For God so loved the world,” John the Evangelist wrote in his Gospel, “that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” I emphasize the word world in that passage because of the three readings we have today. The salvation of the entire world was always in Gods plan, not just the rescue of Israel and the Hebrews. And while Jesus spent most of his ministry offering salvation first to Israel, we have occasions throughout the Gospel that demonstrate the will of God that this call to salvation will spread to all people.

Israel had been chosen as the instrument of salvation, not the limitation of it. After their release from bondage in Egypt, Israel had the chance to accept its role as priest to the world, the great teacher of God’s law to all of the other nations. Jerusalem would become the City on the Hill that would shine a great light, and all nations would learn to worship the one true Father. Israel, though, became too mired in worldly concerns, starting with the Exodus and the Golden Calf. As a nation, it became too concerned with political power, and its kings began tolerating and then participating in idol worship. Still, salvation would come through Israel, even a fallen Israel, and it would make God’s house “a house of prayer for all peoples,” as Isaiah prophesied in today’s first reading (Isaiah 56:1,6-7). God would offer the Israelites the chance to become priests to the world for its salvation from sin — this time in the form of a church rather than a nation.

Seen from this perspective, the seeming rejection of Jesus might make a little more sense — if in fact that’s what was happening in this passage from Matthew. But was Jesus rejecting the woman, or teaching a lesson to the future high priests of His church to come?

At this time, as our own parish priest reminded us at Mass yesterday, Israelites did not mix with Gentiles. Cultural friction kept them apart as much as possible; the Jews worked with the Romans because they had little choice, but rarely mixed at all beyond that. They didn’t even mix with Samaritans, a people who claim to have the authentic version of Judaism. The Israelites of that time looked for a Messiah to lift Israel out of bondage, and only Israel, a savior who would make all other nations subject to the Israelites. They had little use for interaction, let alone evangelization and conversion, which was the original mission of Israel itself.  That is why the disciples in this passage react so sharply to the pleas of the clearly distraught Gentile woman, who also crossed cultural norms by initiating conversation with a man outside of her acquaintance.

But that prompts another question. If Jesus is called only to gather the lost sheep of Israel and no more, why did Jesus take His disciples to Tyre and Sidon in the first place? Those were Gentile districts, not traditionally Jewish. In fact, the Sidonians oppressed Israel (Judges 10:12), and Solomon’s sin of allowing idolatry in Jerusalem came from his political alliance with the city (1 Kings). Jezebel, one of the great antagonists of Israel in the Old Testament, was a Sidonian princess who perverted King Ahab from the worship of the true God in favor of pagan idols (also 1 Kings). There may well have been a significant number of Jews in both cities, who would certainly have been “lost sheep” in a real sense, but engagement with Gentiles would have been unavoidable.

Jesus didn’t avoid all contact with those considered outside of polite company by most Israelites either. He ran into considerable opposition from the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes for His embrace of tax collectors and sinners who normally got shunned by observant Jews of that time. Jesus healed the unclean, and lifted up the poor. In one passage that parallels that of today, Jesus spoke with a Samaritan woman and transformed her into an evangelist in her community. He taught the love of neighbor in a parable that explicitly used a Samaritan to challenge these cultural barriers. Later Jesus would heal the servant of a Roman centurion, praising the man’s faith after hearing his supplication — which Catholics still use as their Eucharistic prayer to this day.

With that in mind, what really transpired in this passage? Jesus waits for His disciples to react to the woman, and then seems to validate their dismissive reaction, even to the point of suggesting the woman was a “dog” for being a Gentile. This allows the woman to remind Jesus — and His disciples — that even the Gentile nations were meant to be fed from the same table as their “masters” in Israel, who were called to the banquet first among all others. With that argument, and that lesson ringing in the ears of the disciples who tried to get Jesus to dismiss her, He instead heals her daughter and praises her great faith.

Compare this to the fate of the other woman from Sidon mentioned here, Jezebel. She corrupted Israel and attempted to supplant worship of God with paganism. Despite her royal status and power, the exact opposite of the woman in Matthew, Jezebel was cast down from her height to her death on the ground below — to be eaten by dogs, as prophesied by Elijah (2 Kings 9:30-37). The Canaanite woman in the Tyre-Sidon district provides the exact reversal of the Gentile corruption by Jezebel of true worship, a foreshadowing of the triumph of the Church.

Our second reading today offers another dimension of this seeming contradiction in the Gospel passage. Before his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul zealously persecuted the Christian church in Jerusalem and the land of Israel as a heresy of the Judaic faith. The man who once demanded purity of Israelites ended up becoming the great evangelist to the Gentiles instead, telling writing in Romans 11:

I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

Paul also instructs (emphasis mine) that “God delivered all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.” While Paul obviously did not take part in the passage from Matthew, it’s the same lesson Jesus taught the disciples in Sidon and Tyre: that while they would first offer salvation to the lost sheep of Israel, the mission of salvation would be to the entire world — as it had been from the beginning. The Church would not wait for the world to come to it, but it would go to the entire world to convert it to the love of God through the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ, with the power of the Holy Spirit working through its missionaries and priests.

Jesus challenges all to rise above the petty differences, the social boundaries, the divisions between people — whether they be the soft boundaries of “polite society” or the hard boundaries of language, nations, and wealth — to spread caritas and the saving Word of God. When we do, we may find that those self-imposed boundaries only keep us from fulfillment, both in Christ and in ourselves, and that no other people are “dogs” at all. Instead, we all have the potential to be true children of God, and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The front-page image is a detail of “Christ and the Canaanite Woman” by Pieter Lastman from the early 17th century.


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Comment pages: 1 2

Honest … I haven’t gone into hiding. I’ve just run outta time to give proper, thoughtful replies . . . . . my apologies.

listens2glenn on August 20, 2014 at 1:36 AM

I understand. Don’t worry about it. I too have not been able to respond to everything here or respond properly when I do. Very busy this week.

God bless all of you here and your families. Have a good day.

Elisa on August 20, 2014 at 9:12 AM

What I said was that Peter never transferred the authority of “binding and loosing”. Of course they picked successors. That’s the entire point of “feed my lambs, tend my sheep”. Lambs grow into sheep and beget other sheep.

And I wish I had the time to go into THAT Scripturally.

Cleombrotus on August 19, 2014 at 1:32 PM

With all due reverence, that is so unscriptural. Peter opened churches in every community where he was welcomed. Your position asserts that after he opened the new churches he tipped his hat and said Hasta La Vista Baby instead of conducting the rite of laying on hands and increasing the line of Bishops. While the twelve tribes of Israel were from the bloodlines of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, Jesus selected a motley crew of predominantly unrelated fellows by laying on his hands and anointing them. Just what do you figure the keys to the kingdom to be? A set of keys? I suspect that if you are of the mindset that once saved, saved for life then this will not be reasonable to you. Binding and loosing has everything to do with keys.

The third stage is glorification about which I have not said anything. That occurs at death or the end of time. We are saved from the presence of sin and our standing and experience are the same.

davidk on August 19, 2014 at 1:55 PM

Stages? Belief is a program? It is now your spirituality that is the way? If that makes once saved, saved for life work for you then work at it my brother.

Elisa on August 20, 2014 at 8:54 AM

Amen!

ericdijon on August 20, 2014 at 9:15 AM

This is from the previous thread that I was talking about with David.

A salvation that is not by works. A salvation that that is worked out. A salvation that is yet to be revealed.
These verses need reconciling.

davidk on May 20, 2014 at 7:51 AM

Those three verses point to different aspects of our salvation.
Salvation past: deliverance from the penalty of sin. Justification.
Salvation present: deliverance from the power of sin. Sanctification.

Salvation future: deliverance from the presence of sin. Glorification.

davidk on May 20, 2014 at 7:58 AM

davidk on May 20, 2014 at 8:05 AM

davidk on May 20, 2014 at 8:10 AM

davidk on May 20, 2014 at 8:15 AM

This is what I responded then:

I agree with you. Catholics also believe “We have been saved,” “we are saved,” “we are being saved” and “we will be saved” all at the same time. (As per Scripture, which has to be taken in its entirely, as you noted, different passages reconciled)

Here is a link to the Catechism of the Catholic Church if anyone wants to see what Catholics believe on justification and grace.

Often Catholics and Protestants/nondenominationalist simply use different words and definitions of the same words or have a slightly different understanding of those words, but in reality agree on what salvation is. (Some differ entirely and it’s more than semantics.)

http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c3a2.htm

Just a few excerpts:

JUSTIFICATION

1987 The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism: . . . .

1990 Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin. Justification follows upon God’s merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals. . . .

1992 Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ . . .

1993 Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent: . . .

GRACE

1996 Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. . . .

2000 Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call, is distinguished from actual graces which refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification.

2001 The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. . . .

2003 Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, . . . .

IV. CHRISTIAN HOLINESS

2012 “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him . . . For those whom he fore knew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”64

Elisa on August 20, 2014 at 9:18 AM

Can one enter into Heaven/salvation without that sanctification process. And if they cannot, then isn’t that sanctification process necessary for salvation? That is what Catholics believe. Elisa

I absolutely reject the teaching that one can be saved and not accept the Lordship of Jesus. But I would have to say “Yes” in answer to your question At the same time I would say that if one is not “in” that sanctification process the it is doubtful he/she is even saved.

We are saved for good works. Right after Paul tells us that we are “are saved by grace through faith,” he tells us, “For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.”

Yes. After salvation, one can drift into (even rank) sin and be in agony over it. (As I was at one time. I even thought I was not saved, but now I understand that I was. Even when I was unfaithful [to His calling], God remained faithful.)

But we are called to holiness. Holiness means to be set apart to a purpose. Like a carpenter who has several hammers. Each hammer is a hammer, but some are set apart to be used for specific purposes; they are holy for that purpose.

As Christians we are set apart for specific works created by God for us to do.

The life of a Christians is a life of (as Paul puts it) taking off and putting on. We put off the world’s way and put on God’s way. Paul says let him who steals steal not longer (putting off) but rather let him work with his hand (putting on).

The means of God’s grace and power for sanctification (that setting apart from the world and to good works) is varied.

The Catholic church refers to various actions as sacraments. While (in my view) they do not affect or effect your initial salvation, they are means (dare I say channels?) for God’s grace and empowering so we are strengthened for those works He has prepared for us and for which He has set us apart (has sanctified us). They are part of the spirituals exercise to which Paul refers when he tells Timothy to “exercise yourself for the purpose of Godliness.”

davidk on August 20, 2014 at 9:51 AM

Elisa on August 20, 2014 at 9:18 AM

My main concern is for those who say they cannot be sure if they are saved because they don’t know if they have done enough works or the right kind of works.

davidk on August 20, 2014 at 9:55 AM

Stages? Belief is a program? It is now your spirituality that is the way? If that makes once saved, saved for life work for you then work at it my brother.

ericdijon on August 20, 2014 at 9:15 AM

I don’t like the word “stage,” but I am not sure what to call it. Phases?

Paul tells us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Are you a Calvinist?

davidk on August 20, 2014 at 10:05 AM

Are you a Calvinist?

davidk on August 20, 2014 at 10:05 AM

I doubt you were anticipating a simple answer to that type of question.

Before I was a year old, my folks baptized me in a Presbyterian church. I grew up in the same church and after confirmation I encountered great personal loss. I spent the next many decades denying a relationship with a God I knew was everywhere. I married twice plus one, once in the Catholic Church – ending in civil divorce, and once by a JOP. Later, we elevated the JOP marriage to a Sacramental Marriage in the Blessed Chapel (two weeks following the Canonical Annulment of the first marriage). During my decades of denial I came to know the Catholic faith more clearly than all I ever knew of my protestant roots. If my first marriage were practiced as a Catholic marriage it would still be intact today. I now know the Mass (meaning, purpose, and ceremony) better than most cradle Catholics. You may not understand this, because it is a personal admission, but I began to realize that the Truth I was looking for was not available in the Presbyterian churches I knew but I could see it steaming profusely from everything Catholic. I never really got more than snippets of the entire body of faith from the Presbyterian Church and this was what I realized to be the entire basis of my denial. I mean no disrespect, but I now see protestant faiths as being assembled without so much as once glancing at the instructions and the extra pieces left over are tossed out with the box. Meaning – [you] know what a bike should look like but don’t completely grasp what a bike is but you ride it faithfully never, hopefully falling from it. I fell and never got back on the bike that men put together. My wife sponsored me during RCIA and a priest brought me into the Church on the Easter Vigil. I am influenced by modern apologists who guide my protestant bible schooling to the places they rightfully belong. I am historically soaked by Plato’s Republic, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Francis de Sales. My wife exposes me constantly to St. Vincent de Paul, St Don (John) Bosco, St Catherine of Siena, and St. Therese of Lisieux. We are EWTN junkies. I am Catholic.

ericdijon on August 20, 2014 at 4:40 PM

It’s important to remember that even the good works that we do are done because of God’s grace. He gives us the grace for good works and we can never do them on our own, apart from God.
While there are some Protestant/nondenominational Christians whose beliefs are very different from Catholic and Orthodox beliefs on this. I think many times for most Christians, the different beliefs on this topic are merely semantics.
Catholics and Orthodox believe that we are saved by grace and that both faith and works are necessary for salvation, that we cooperate with God’s grace.
Many Christians believe that it’s not necessary for works to be necessary because a Christian will automatically do the good works by his very nature of being a Christian and if he doesn’t then he wasn’t a true Christian anyway.
But if you look at that, they are saying the good works are not necessary for salvation, but they are necessary to be a Christian, which is necessary for salvation.
Look to my first sentence here. No Catholic or Orthodox person is saying that our good works are ours or that we are entitled to salvation because of them or that we earn salvation because of them. Even our good works come from God’s grace.
God doesn’t need our good works to save us, but He expects them and requires them, according to Scripture alone and Sacred Tradition.
Elisa on August 20, 2014 at 8:54 AM

I appreciate all of this very much.

The necessity of good works, I believe, lies in the fact that the Spirit of God enables His children to walk in them. They are a NECESSARY PRODUCT of the New Creation, but not the cause of it.

If this is indeed the Catholic position, it helps to be stated so clearly and eloquently. I fear that far too often statements I’ve read or heard give the impression (or sometimes state flat-out) that works EARN salvation. And there may be some who do truly believe that, which is, then, a point of contention.

But I also believe that the kindred elect are scattered all over, even in places WE think they shouldn’t be, and will find a way to relate to each other as their paths cross.

My prayer is that this will be so here. I certainly find myself challenged, uplifted, and educated by much of what I read here, and I am grateful for it.

questionmark on August 20, 2014 at 7:55 PM

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