21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
This event occurs after Jesus and the apostles, by boat, reached Gennesaret on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. They had a run-in with the Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem to question him. He exposes their hypocrisy. The first line in this passage states, “And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” This sets up an interesting contrast between the Pharisees and scribes compared to the faith of a Canaanite woman.
Via Brant Pitre’s commentary on Catholic Productions:
She’s coming to Jesus and begging him for mercy, and using the title, the royal title, “Son of David” when she is addressing him. Honoring him, in a sense, as King, as Messiah, as the ruler of the people of Israel—which is a lot more than Jesus got from some of his contemporaries living in the holy land. Many of them rejected him, but this Canaanite woman recognizes him. Also, I might just note here, that the expression “have mercy on me, Lord” — _eleēson me, kyrie_ in the Greek—is where we get _Kyrie Eleison_ from in the Mass.
I wonder about the stories this woman must have heard about Jesus that invoked such faith. She accepted more than that he was a miracle worker. When ignored and then challenged by Jesus, her faith increased and saw beyond the insult and entered into the playful way Jesus was speaking to her.
Peter Kreeft has some excellent nuggets of insight regarding her action and Jesus’ response.
He was deliberately insulting her, implicitly calling her a dog, to test her faith. And she responded by refuting his argument from analogy. She used his own analogy against him. She said, in effect, “I humbly accept your premise: we Gentiles are like dogs and you Jews are God’s chosen children. But that premise proves my conclusion, not yours, for even dogs eat scraps from their master’s table, if their master is a loving master, as you are. Therefore, please, for the love of my daughter, heal her.” Sometimes a teacher deliberately says something refutable and answerable, something that opens a pathway for his student to answer him and refute him, hoping that the student will see it and take that path. And Jesus’ hope is rewarded.
Her growing faith and especially her humility shine through in how she responds to being tested. I especially enjoy this insight from Dr. Peter Kreeft:
Jesus thus, at one stroke, gave everyone involved what they most needed: the woman, her daughter, the demon, his disciples, and the world, which includes all of us who read this Scripture, down through the long corridors of time. The woman needed his miracle to satisfy her love for her daughter, and she also needed her faith to be tested and strengthened. Her daughter needed the exorcism. The demon needed to go home to hell where he belonged. The disciples needed a lesson in broadness and humility versus narrowness and pride. And the world needed to see Jesus’ love and wisdom and power, the three attributes of God that most clearly manifest his divinity.
This dovetails nicely with St. John Chrysostom writes:
This was the cause why Christ was so backward, that He knew what she would say, and would not have her so great excellence hid; whence it follows, _Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith, be it unto thee according to thy will. Observe how the woman herself had contributed not a little to her daughter’s healing and therefore Christ said not unto her, ‘Let thy daughter be healed,’ but, _Be it unto thee according to thy will; that you may perceive that she had spoken in sincerity, and that her words were not words of flattery, but of abundant faith. And this word of Christ is like that word which said, _Let there be a firmament_ (Gen. 1:6.) and it was made; so here, _And her daughter was made whole from that hour_. Observe how she obtains what the Apostles could not obtain for her; so great a thing is the earnestness of prayer. He would rather that we should pray for our own offences ourselves, than that others should pray for us.
From the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture:
Much can be learned by reflecting on the words and actions of the Canaanite woman. Among other things, she is a model for effective prayer. First, notice that she comes to the Savior with _faith. She never questions whether Jesus is able to deliver her daughter from the demon. She simply trusts in the divine authority of Jesus, three times calling him “Lord.” Second, she shows _perseverance_ in asking for Jesus’ help. Neither his initial silence nor his attempt to decline the request lessened her tenacity in pursuing his assistance. She persisted until she attained what she sought. Third, the woman displays admirable _humility. One might expect her to take offense at the comparison between non-Jews and house pets. But the reaction of the woman gives no indication that her pride has suffered any injury. Instead of being put off by the comment, she accepts that she has no claim on the God of Israel or his Messiah. The episode thus presents us with dispositions essential to petitionary prayer. If we approach the Lord Jesus as the Canaanite woman did, we too can hope for his favorable response: “Let it be done for you as you wish.”
There is some question as to the level of insult dogs was meant to be. The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible notes:
Literally, “little dogs” or “puppies”.
Strongs concordance’s notes the same thing about the Greek involved. _kynárion_ – properly, puppy, a diminutive of 2965 /kýōn(“dog”). While Jesus would not have been using Greek here, the Greek might as a translation point to Jesus’ playfulness here.
An important point that John Bergsma makes:
So, in the case of this Sunday’s Gospel, we need to understand Jesus’s actions as tailored to the faith of this woman. He sees that she has faith—he puts her faith to the test to elicit more faith. Untested faith is no faith at all.
This Gospel passage ends with Jesus replying, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” This is another example of how Jesus replies to faith. Specifically, marveling at the faith of a gentile such as with the Centurion at Capernaum.
- Peter Kreeft, Food for the Soul: Reflections on the Mass Readings Cycle A
- Catena Aurea Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers, Volume 1 St. Matthew – Verbum
- The Gospel of Matthew (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
- Catholic Productions, Commentaries by Brant Pitre
- The Word of the Lord: Reflections on the Sunday Mass Readings for Year A – John Bergsma
- Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
- Catholic Productions, Brant Pitre, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time↩︎
- Peter Kreeft, Food for the Soul: Reflections on the Mass Readings Cycle A, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time↩︎
- S. John Chrysostom, Abp. of Constantinople, A.D. 398. _Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels_↩︎
- The Gospel of Matthew, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Edward Sri and Curtis Mitch↩︎
- The Word of the Lord: Reflections on the Sunday Mass Readings for Year A, John Bergsma, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time↩︎