Today’s gospel teaches us to pray always and not lose heart. This is a gospel about having tenacity in prayer and, even when the results seem discouraging, continuing to beseech the Lord. It is also a gospel about the Lord’s will to extend the gospel to all the nations and to make the Church truly catholic.
Let’s look at this gospel in five stages.
STAGE I. TRAVELS – The text says, At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Thus Jesus goes north of Israel into the territory we know today as Lebanon.
Now Matthew is not just giving us a quick travelogue here. We are not interested merely in Jesus’ physical location but, even more, in what this location signifies. Jesus has gone up north to pagan territory. Other things being equal, this is a rather odd destination for a Jewish preacher. But we need to recall that Jesus is preparing the Church for a mission to all the nations. So it makes sense that He pushes the boundaries of the Jewish world. Jesus interacted with Gentiles and Samaritans as if to say, “The racism of a Jewish-only world must now end. The Gospel must break the boundaries of nation and race and be truly universal, truly catholic.”
This vision of the Gentiles being drawn to the Lord was actually well attested to in the Old Testament. But, just like today, there were texts in the Scriptures that were popular and well known and others that were conveniently “forgotten” or had little effect. Consider a few examples of texts that announced the entry of the Gentiles into the Holy People of God:
- The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, ministering to him, loving the name of the LORD, and becoming his servants–all who keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, 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 (Isaiah 56:6-9).
- I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Is 49:6).
- Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called “mother” for all shall be her children (Psalm 87:4-5).
- I come to gather nation of every language; they shall come and see my glory. Some of these I will take as priests and Levites says the Lord … All mankind shall come to worship before me says the Lord (Is 66:18; 23).
Hence we can see that the Jewish people’s own Scriptures spoke of a day when Jews and Gentiles together would worship the Lord and be His people.
This introductory note about Jesus’ location is essential to understanding the text that will follow. We must grasp Jesus’ will to reach out to the Gentiles. We do this in order to appreciate that some of the harsh tone He exhibits later can likely be understood as a rhetorical means of questioning racial and national division rather than as an affirmation of such division. In effect He is tweaking His disciples and the Church and giving voice to their fears and hostilities. In so doing He also calls out the Canaanite woman in order to show forth one who is willing to set aside these racist notions for a greater good.
Let’s watch it unfold.
Stage II. TORMENT – The text says, 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.”
It is a sure fact that Canaanites were despised by Jews. And Canaanites returned the favor and despised them right back. What is it that would make a Canaanite woman reach out to a Jewish Messiah? In a word, desperation. In her torment and desperation this woman no longer cares who helps her daughter as long as someone helps her!
She has likely heard of Jesus’ power to save and heal. She looks past her racial hatred and, risking terrible personal rebuke, calls on Jesus. Her sorrow crosses boundaries. The only enemy she cares about is the demon afflicting her daughter.
It is sad but true that a common enemy can often unite factions. It should not take this, but the Lord will take whatever he can get to unite us.
So torment has lowered the barriers.
Stage III. TEST – The text says, 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.”…. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
It is a shocking and daring thing that Jesus does here. He takes up the voice of sin, oppression, racism, and nationalism. It is a very strange thing to hear come from the mouth of the Lord, who has already journeyed among the Samaritans and Gentiles, healing them and often praising their faith (e.g. Lk 8:26; Mt 8:10; Lk 7:9; Matt 8:11 inter al).
The usual explanation is that He is calling out this woman’s faith and through her is summoning His disciples to repentance. The disciples want the Lord to order her away. In effect, He takes up their voices and the voice of all oppression and utters the hateful sayings of the world, even going so far as to use the term “dog” to refer to her.
Yes, Jesus is testing her, trying to awaken something in her. He is also giving voice to the ugly thoughts of His disciples and likely others, Gentile and Jew, who were standing by and watching with marvel and disdain the interaction of a Gentile, a Gentile woman, and a Jew.
There is a saying, “Things do, by opposition grow.” And thus, through this test, Jesus increases her faith and possibly that of the bystanders. Just as an athlete grows by facing tougher opponents and a musician improves by playing tougher pieces, so does the testing of this woman’s faith cause it to grow.
Remember, God tested Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Job, Esther, Susannah, Judith, Gideon, and countless others. The Canaanite woman, too, is being tested. And like those of old she, too, will grow by the test.
We, too, are tested. For God seems at times to be strangely silent and we are made to feel like no child of God at all. Indeed we may often conclude that even the dogs live better than we.
So the question for us remains. Will we give way during the test or hold out until our change comes? Will our faith grow or wither? Will our love grow stronger or will it change to resentment?
Stage IV. TENACITY – The text says, But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
Note here that the woman is not put off. Whatever anger, grief, or discouragement may move through her, she perseveres.
She is even bold and creative. In a sense, she will not take no for an answer.
- She is like Mother Mary at Cana, who did not pause for a moment when Jesus seemed dubious of her request (Jn 2:5).
- She is like the widow before the Judge in Jesus’ parable, who never stopped pestering the judge for a favorable ruling (Lk 18:1-8).
- She is like the blind man at the side of the road, who still kept calling for Jesus despite the rebuke of the crowds (Lk 18:39).
- She is like the parents who brought their infants to Jesus for a blessing, who withstood rebuke by the disciples and won through to the blessing (Mk 10:13-16).
- She is like Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree to see Jesus despite his short stature (Lk 19:1ff).
- She is like the widow with the hemorrhage, who, though weak and ritually unclean, pressed thorough the crowd and grabbed the hem of Jesus’ garments (Mk 5:28).
- She is like the lepers, who, though forbidden by law to enter the town, sought the Lord at the Gates and fell down before Him (Luke 17).
Yes, she has tenacity. She will hold out until the change (the healing she desires for her daughter) is accomplished. She will not give up or let go of Jesus no matter how unwilling He seems, no matter how politically incorrect her request appears, no matter how much hostility she encounters from the disciples, the crowds, or even Jesus Himself. She will hold out.
Here is a woman with tenacity! How about you?
Stage V. TRIUMPH – The text says, 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.
Here is the victory. She has gone from torment to triumph by a tenacious and tested faith. Jesus now takes away the veil of His role and shows His true self—the merciful, wonder-working Messiah and Lord.
Jesus says to her, “Great is your faith.” But how has it become so? In the crucible of testing, that’s how. We may wonder at God’s delays, at His seeming disinterest or even anger. But in the end it is our faith that is most important to Him.
Our faith is more important to God than our finances, our comfort, or our desired cures. For it is by faith that we are saved. We are not saved by our health, by comforts, by money, or by good fortune. And God is willing to delay; He is willing to test us and try us, if only for the sake of our stronger faith by which He will save us. God saves us, but He does it through our faith.
Why all this delay? Why the suffering? Why the trials? Stronger faith, that’s why! God may not come when you want Him, but He’s always right on time. For His true goal is not to give us what we want, but rather what we need—stronger faith.
Having done this, the Lord gives her the triumph. We, too, must accept that God’s truest blessing for us is not better health or improved finances; it is stronger faith.
Consider well the lesson of this gospel. Though God often seems uninterested, even cruel, He is working His purposes out and seeking to increase our faith. Hard, you say? What parent among you has not had to do the same for your child? For children, untested and untried, who get their every wish, who never have to wait, become spoiled, self-centered, and headed for ultimate ruin. Consider well that God knows exactly what He is doing and consider, too, that most of us are hard cases. God must often work mightily to get our attention and strengthen our faith. Do not give up on God; He is up to something good, very good.
Photo Credit: Goodsalt.com, used with permission.
I have it on the best of authority that as this woman saw Jesus coming up the road she sang this song:
Pass me not O gentle savior
hear my humble cry
while on others thou art calling
do not pass me by
Savior, savior, hear my humble cry
while on others thou art calling
do not pass me by
Let me at a throne of mercy
find a sweet relief
kneeling there in deep contrition
help my unbelief
20 Replies to “While on others thou art calling, do not pass me by. A Homily for the 20th Sunday of the Year”
I love this passage. Jesus came for each one of us. For any woman to approach a man, much less a gentile, would have been unheard of in Jesus time. Her courage and love for her child drove her to approach this man she had obviously heard about. I love that she already believes in Him.
I love what you wrote, “God may not come when you want Him, but He’s always right on time.” He is always there. Nothing can separate us from the love He has for us. Nothing, except for us, ourselves. Faith, what a gift it is!
our lord is a merciful father and he is alway there to help his children. Father thanks for ur great work, and may d lord bless the work he has sent u for and all who help you. Amen.
I have been blind as a bat for so long, but now I understand to what lengths our Lord will go in order to help us grow in faith. This is the first time someone has explained so that I might understand those very trying times I have had in the past. Thank you so much Msgr., God bless you and keep you in the palm of His hand forever!
I am mentally ill and have been praying to be healed for over 50 years. Doesn’t this mean it’s time to give up asking Jesus to help me? With each prayer being answered “no” or “not yet”, I become more in despair. Don’t you think that God knows by now that He doesn’t need to test me anymore?
Kathy, I feel for you, and I too know what its like to have prayers unanswered.
But I’ve had others answered… so my feeling is that the unanswered are crosses
I also know He doesn’t give us more than we can take…so you must be a very
May God give you serenity to accept the things that cannot change and the
courage to change the things you can.
Kathy, I am sorry that you are suffering and I will pray for you. Are you getting proper medications and on a good diet & exercise? Are you getting therapy and going to the Sacraments (confession&communion)? How about going to Eucharistic adoration? Are you living a good life by not being in the state of mortal sin? These things that I’ve just mentioned all work together and these combinations should help you. I will pray for you. 🙂
Kathy, I’ll add my prayers to yours for your healing & ask our Blessed Mother Mary to pray for you also.
Hi. No, persevere in prayer. Perhaps the 1st chapter of James will help? Test, yes, but we must remember the Lord already knows our hearts, just as He did her’s and the disciples’. Transformation, this is being brought about, patiently, as the Master tells them later for rebuking the children; “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Mt 19:14) I know what it means, to be affixed to the cross. Find a good spiritual advisor, forgive everything and ask for Anointing and Holy Communion after making a good confession. You suffer with Christ, live in Christ and may you find healing in being configured to Him. God bless you.
I just saw your post on another site. I didn’t know how things were. Please, see if someone in your Parish can arrange for a social worker to visit you. If you need meds, there is help. Don’t give up!
Why would you give up now Kathy. You have survived the past fifty years with God’s help. Success is survival and sometimes we have to tough it out. Our lives are not a test as much as a purpose. So far you have live up to God’s purpose. You can fulfill the rest of his purpose if you have made it this far. Thank God.
Thank you for the inspiring post, Msgr.
+PRAYER TO ST. BENEDICT
Glorious Saint Benedict, sublime model of virtue,
pure vessel of GOD’s grace!
Behold us humbly kneeling at your feet.
We implore thee in thy loving kindness
to pray for our dear little sister, Kathy,
before the throne of GOD.
To thee we have recourse in the dangers
that daily surround us.
Shield us against our selfishness
and our indifference to
God and to our neighbor.
Inspire us to imitate thee in all things.
May thy blessing be with us always,
so that we may see and serve Christ
in others and work for His kingdom.
Graciously obtain for us from
GOD those favors and graces
which our little sister Kathy
needs so much in the trials,
difficulties and afflictions of her
Like unto JESUS our Blessed LORD,
Thy heart was always full
of love, compassion and mercy
toward those who were afflicted
or troubled in any way.
Thou didst NEVER dismiss
without sweet consolation and assistance
anyone who had recourse to thee.
We therefore invoke thy powerful intercession,
confident in the hope that thou wilt hear
our prayers and obtain for us the special graces
and favors we earnestly implore thee for
Kathy’s well being, peace and health of mind.
Help all of us, great Saint Benedict,
to live and die as faithful children of GOD,
to run in the sweetness of His loving will,
and to attain the eternal happiness of heaven.
Thank you Blessed St. Benedict
for thy wondrous, loving prayerfulness. Amen.
+PRECIOUS SACRED HEART OF JESUS HAVE MERCY+
. . . all for Jesus+
Thanks for the explanation on the Gospel about the Canaanite woman.
I have a variation though, on the lesson that we should draw from the Gospel. You say “Consider well the lesson of this gospel. Though God often seems uninterested, even cruel, He is working His purposes out and seeking to increase our faith. Hard, you say? What parent among you has not had to do the same for your child? For children, untested and untried, who get their every wish, who never have to wait, become spoiled, self-centered, and headed for ultimate ruin. Consider well that God knows exactly what He is doing and consider, too, that most of us are hard cases. God must often work mightily to get our attention and strengthen our faith. Do not give up on God; He is up to something good, very good.”
Firstly, I suggest that the lesson of this Gospel is limited to that of persevering in faith. I think that the “testing” of the Canaanite woman is an aspect that is specific to the incident between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, and it probably does not lend itself to the extrapolation that we must expect God to test us. Also, the verbal exchanges between the woman and Jesus took place in front of the disciples who had just a few minutes earlier asked Jesus to “send her away” because “she keeps calling out after us”, and they knew she was a Gentile – and the final outcome i.e. with Jesus lauding her great faith and granting her request, would have been a silent lesson to them that the Gentiles too were people capable of great faith in God and to be ministered too, as well.
Secondly, I suggest that we cannot take it that if we approach God in prayer for something and He does not give it to us, that it means that He is testing us and seeks to increase our faith by His non-response. I think that we are ignoring one important thing – God is Father and which father would not give his child what the child asks for, if it were good for the child? The central consideration is that it should be good for the child. A little child may ask his father for a shiny knife lying on the table, but however much it may hurt the father to see his child upset and hurt, he will not give the child the knife. Love is at the centre of that act of denial. In the same way, when we pray and do not get what we pray for, it may be because what we ask for, even though it seems to us to be good, may, in reality, not be good for us, which we as humans, cannot know, and God, our Loving Father, will not let us have something that will hurt us. So, it may not be that denying our request is to test and strengthen our faith, though strengthening of faith may be a consequent gift that we receive from God when we accept whatever outcome is the result of our petitions to Him, in the knowledge that He, not giving what we ask for, is actually gifting us His protection, as He is protecting us by denying us what is not good for us.
I learn so much from the comments God Bless you all
This explanation has helped me to see this passage differently. I have had difficulty with Jesus initial response to this woman’s plea for help. I cannot say that I truly understand why Jesus did not response positively at her first request. The woman had sought Him and found Him. I will try to be more persistent in my prayers even when I seek Him and the response is slow in coming. In the end, Jesus takes care of everything.
Thanks for this interpretation of this passage. I had always taken Jesus words as absolute truth, and didn’t understand his harshness, even name calling! But that begs a question as to why God would “lie”. I suppose the “test” theory would hold it is not a real lie, but then consider why would God need to “test” anyone, since he knows everything! However, as you point out, he has tested others throughout salvation history, Abraham certainly!
This problem seems to support my ‘theory” concerning free will and predestination. I propose that in order to grant free will to man and the angels, He must somehow suppress knowledge of individual people’s futures! He hides this knowledge in order to grant us free will, and prevent predestination. Sounds strange, but it explains many situations throughtout salvation history, both old and new Testament. If God had known that Lucifer would revolt, would he have created him in the first place?
Another problem is Jesus’ misistry to the gentiles. It would seem that the original plan was to minister only to the Jews, but seeing the great faith of many of the gentiles, God “changed His mind” as it were and included them in salvation.
What do you think of these ideas? I am as cradle Catholic with a strong faith (I like to believe so, at least). These ideas occur to me and I need some guidance! I am an engineer by trade.
I am not sure if you have the basis to conclude he was lying. Remember, written texts are tone-deaf and we cannot know many other subtleties of the moment or even that the Evangelist recorded every detail. Neither do I think there is any basis to think that Jesus changed his mind about the Gentiles. Given the numerous prophecies from the Old Testament I quote (and could have quoted a lot more) I think the plan all along was to include them at a time of his choosing.
Thank you, Msgr.!
That explains a lot! however, what about my idea of God suppressing knowledge of individual persons future ?
Sorry to bother you again! This has bothered me for years!
Msgr, this is so beautiful…where can I get a copy of the hymn sung by the group of men? I hope somewhere. Thank you.
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