A Changed Ministry

The readings for Sunday, August 20, Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; and Matthew 15:21-28.

In Matthew 10:5 we read this, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans.”  But at the end of his Gospel, Matthew ascribes to Jesus these words, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (Gentiles)….” Before Matthew’s Gospel was written, St. Paul’s method was to proclaim Jesus Christ first in the synagogues to the Jews. When rejected there, he turned to the Gentiles in their houses and open spaces. Such must have been the standard procedure before Paul and after him. Matthew reflects this two-pronged proclamation and attributes it to Jesus himself. Matthew however, writing fifty years after the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth, knows how things will end — that the Church will become overwhelmingly a Church of Gentiles. Therefore, from time to time in the body of the Gospel, he hints at the eventual universality of the Christian mission — not just to Jews but to all nations — the Gentiles.

The gospel reading of this Sunday is an example of Matthew looking into the future Church not for Jews only, but for the Gentiles. He begins, “At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” These were city states in northern Palestine on the Mediterranean seacoast. They were not considered part of the Holy Land. So Matthew depicts Jesus going beyond the territory of his ministry to the Jews, and doing ministry in heathen territory. In this area of “outsiders,” Matthew writes, “a Canaanite woman approached him…, and called out to him….” Matthew knows of two strikes against her. First, the woman approaches Jesus. “Proper” women in the culture in which Jesus lived and operated, did not approach a man in public.

The other strike against this distraught and anxious woman — she was a Canaanite. The Canaanites were the original inhabitants of the Land of Canaan, a heathen land that was called Palestine by its Roman conquerors. Whether or not this incident in the Gospel of Matthew is historical does not matter. Matthew knows what he is doing. By the time he composes his Gospel in the eighties of the first century, he knows that the Christian mission has already moved far beyond the Holy Land and beyond its beginnings among the Jews. By depicting Jesus’ presence in heathen territory, and his mercy toward this woman, Matthew justifies the Christian mission to the Gentiles.

The Canaanite woman pleads with Jesus, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!” If this were an actual quote from more than a half century earlier, it would be strange indeed — a heathen woman recognizing Jesus as Lord and as the long-awaited descendant of David who would drive out the enemies of the Jews and restore the empire first created by David a millennium earlier. But this story is catechesis, and Matthew again justifies the mission to the Gentiles by depicting a Gentile woman recognizing Jesus not only as Lord, but as King. The woman’s pleading gets specific, “My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus’ response, “He did not say a word to her.” That hurts, doesn’t it? Is this Jesus the Jew who because of the traditions voiced in the Torah will have nothing to do with a Canaanite?

Again, we are engaged in a profound catechetical lesson assembled by the author of the Gospel. The disciples take their cue from Jesus, as they speak, “Send her away. She keeps calling after us.” Then Matthew clearly states what, in his theology, is the problem. He attributes to Jesus these words, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Tough love? Thus the dramatic genius of Matthew builds up tension in the story. The woman refuses to give up. “Lord, help me!” Again that august title, “Lord,” as she bows deeply before Jesus. He quotes a proverb, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

The Canaanite woman displays a good sense of humor, as she responds to what sounded like an insult, “Please Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”  The Matthean Jesus could not resist the persistent plea and the sense of humor, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”  Matthew adds, “And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.” As Jonah the prophet had to learn through tough love that God loved even the hated Assyrians of Nineveh, as the ethnic cleansing policies of Nehemiah and Ezra had to curtailed through the Book of Ruth to show that God loved even the hated Moabites, so the first century Christian Jews had to learn that God loves all people, even the hated Canaanites.