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.