I consider myself to be relatively conservative in my own views. That is not to say that I am obstinate or even stubborn, as that label often connotes. However, once I have made up my mind, I tend to remain in that mindset. So, as I read and prayed over this weekend’s gospel I have been surprised by God’s revelation to me.
It is probably our view that Jesus was certain and resolute in His ministry – always knowing what He was doing and how He would do it. He even seems to give us indications that this is the case. Even today, as this Canaanite woman approaches Him, He is quite blunt about it: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When the distressed woman continues to plead with Him to heal her daughter, Jesus is even more blunt: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
Did the Lord just insult that woman?
Yes, He did. She was an “outsider” – a woman from the district of Tyre and Sidon (non-Jewish territory). What on earth is this Jesus doing?
As I said, Jesus knew what His mission was as He began His ministry. He came to save the world; but He came specifically to remind God’s Chosen People, Israel, of the love that the Lord has for them. Therefore, He travelled from Galilee to Judea and back and forth spreading His message of the Reign of God.
And many of the Jews rejoiced in this message.
However, there were others who heard about Jesus. News like His could not be kept hidden. This Canaanite woman knew that Jesus of Nazareth was nearby, and she risked the scorn that here status as a foreigner would bring in order to see this wonder-worker from Galilee and get help for her daughter.
Even in the face of the apparent harshness of Jesus’ response to her, she continues to risk even more abuse for the sake of her daughter – for she knew that only in Jesus could she find the assistance and salvation that she needed. Her clever reply touches Christ: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
What a touching scene! This woman completely disregards herself, her pride, her ego, in order to continue to access Jesus. What is cute is that the word here for “dog” that both Jesus and the woman use is better translated as “puppies.” Further, these would not be wild, stray mutts, but housedogs or pets. They have a place in the home, even if they are dogs.
It is this woman’s response that gets to the Lord. He is amazed at her faith, surprised at how great it is. The Lord is shocked, even.
And Jesus changes His mind.
At the beginning of this gospel, Christ was certain that He was doing the right thing in sharing His message and healing ministry only with Israel. Now, in light of this woman’s beautiful and powerful faith, He now understands that even “outsiders” have a place at that table of the Lord. He allows His human mind to be opened and His human heart to be touched. Here, the prophecy of Isaiah that we hear in the First Reading:
The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, … them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
What do I learn from this gospel?
First, all are invited to the table of the Lord. This is the place where God speaks His loving and saving Word to us, through which we are saved, and this salvation is for all people – not just “insiders.”
Second, it’s okay to change your mind – provided it is done in faith and complete reliance on the grace of God at work in and around you. Jesus allowed the Father to speak to Him through the faith-filled pleading of this mother. It is the Lord’s human heart that allowed His human mind to open to the reality of the Reign of God embracing all people, even at that moment. The work of salvation was unfolding already, and here we see the joyful news of our own inclusion on that “holy mountain.”
Finally, I learn that each encounter – every moment lived with faith – every occasion of ministry – is a learning experience. God has not finished speaking to you and me. With this sort of divine open-mindedness we are sent into our world to recognize the gift of God to the world that will also be revealed through us.
The "puppies" finally rejoice to be part of the family – I will never feel guilty about sharing my dinner with them again!