To make some sense of the troubling gospel passage (Matthew 15: 21-28) given us for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, let me submit to you a probable scenario. It is necessary lest we certainly find Jesus’ conduct and words to that Canaanite woman totally shocking.
Here is the scenario that I propose.
Jesus is walking somewhere in Galilee and his twelve, full-blooded Israelite disciples are some abreast with him and the rest within earshot. As full-blooded Israelites, they are deeply aware of belonging to God’s chosen people. As such, they are most certain that the House of prayer mentioned in Isaiah (56:1, 6-7) is the Temple of Jerusalem. No pagan, under penalty of death, can enter its most sacred and hallowed ground.
Keep in mind also that, having lived their whole life in close vicinity to pagans, including the gentiles inhabiting the territory of the ten cities (Decapolis) in the heart of Galilee, they had no qualms referring to pagans as “dogs.” In our culture we have our share of insults, of course. But it is nothing in comparison to the insult which, from age-old time, the epithet “dogs” implies in the Orient.
Aware of how Jesus had always displayed incredible openness of views and how radically new his teaching had been, at a certain point, one of them asks: “Rabbi, do you really think that God’s House of prayer will be opened to all peoples, including the dogs we have here in Galilee?”
“Rabbi, how is it possible that some of those dogs will join us and pray with us in the Temple and have their sacrifices acceptable to the Lord Yahweh?”
We must imagine twelve people, steep in their prejudices, waiting for their Rabbi to give them an interpretation that would do justice to God’s Word and yet allow them to still consider only themselves and their fellow Israelites, as God’s chosen people.
Jesus had already shocked them and his larger audience by stating that people from the East and the West would come and sit at table in the Kingdom with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob while some of the chosen children would be left out. (cf. Matthew 8:11-12) He had already stated very clearly that what counts is not being children of God by being of the natural lineage of Abraham, but by the inner attitude of a humble heart.
Therefore, we must imagine that this which they are taking with Jesus is a much-needed field trip into the heart of pagan territory, the region of Tyre and Sidon, in Lebanon. We must also imagine that Jesus resorts to reverse psychology to prove to his skeptical group of pupils that, if truly humble, a pagan, a dog can have much more faith than any of them for, indeed, lowliness and not blood line or elitism is the indispensable prerequisite whenever one prays to God.
Without knowing it, that pagan woman is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. In her humility, the Lord had already given her a most comforting insight into the size and love in his fatherly heart. She believes that the Lord’s family home is such a joyous place, with kids and puppies playing, laughing, sharing food, that there are always crumbs and leftovers for “the little dogs” to feed on.
Deliberately, Jesus conducts himself the way a most bigoted Israelite would, because that is the only way his twelve would entertain the thought that Isaiah’s prophecy is indeed being fulfilled before their incredulous eyes and ears.
That Canaanite woman has already entered the new “House of prayer” where anyone can worship the Lord in Spirit and truth. And, in that House of prayer she doesn’t take “NO” for an answer.
She can put up with being deliberately ignored. Nor is she deterred by the attempts made by the disciples to shake her off in a rude fashion.Nor is she discouraged when Jesus reminds her that any of the lost sheep of Israel takes precedence over her, as if saying that she does not have a chance. Nor does she give up when Jesus uses the insult “dog” that had been on the tip of each one of his disciples’ tongues from the first moment they had spotted her. She absorbs the terrible insult and turns it into almost a term of endearment by pointing out that in any decent household the puppies are irresistible. Even the hardest hearts are softened by the sight of hungry puppies.
From the Acts of the Apostles, we learn that it took the disciples a few decades to fully accept, viscerally, that all peoples are God’s children, and that his House of prayer has no walls, no boundaries, no privileged elite. This lesson about the size of the Father’s heart is designed to bring us comfort and to help us set our feet on the right path leading to the final reunion of all peoples around the Table at the wedding feast of the Lamb. Comfort, because our faith comes from former pagans.
That woman from Canaan is one of our ancestors in the faith for she received it on account of her lowliness. From her attitude of persistence and unshakeable faith we learn that the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal. (Sirach 35:17)
And a sense of direction: today we learn what is of true importance: Genuine humility like hers would enable us to see beyond what is passing and insignificant to dwell securely on the boundless love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.