HOMILY & IDEAS

There is no doubt that some of the faithful will hear the Gospel this Sunday and be surprised that Jesus appears to be speaking to the Canaanite woman in such very harsh terms. Jesus disregards the heartfelt and sincere plea for mercy made by the woman, Jesus makes it clear that his mission, at this time, is for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and even likens the woman to a dog.

One could attempt to soften some of this harshness by explaining that the evangelist, Matthew, is taking this Jesus-story and reconstructing it a bit by giving it some teeth in order to make a strong point about the principal place of the Jewish people in salvation history.

However, preaching this point may also prompt you to pass out smelling salts.

What might be a smarter approach is to simply preach this point as -- everything has a time and a place and an order in the will of God inside of salvation history. The love of God for all humanity, however, is not diminished by this fact.

A rather simple story from my childhood illustrates this point. If you were like me at ten years old, one of the simple pleasures of hanging out in the kitchen -- especially when mom was baking -- was to get a hold of the mixing spoons of the electric, handheld mixer that she would use for mixing cake batter. If mom was making a cake for no particular occasion then the spoons were up for grabs on a first come, first serve basis. I seem to remember myself as being first a lot.

However, if the spoons were mixing batter for a birthday cake for someone in the family, then it was tradition that the birthday-girl or birthday-boy had absolute first dibs on the spoons.

No amount of pleading, puppy-dog eyes, pouting, begging or mimicked sounds of starvation or acute batter withdrawal could elicit mercy from my mother if the spoons were meant to be had by one of my brothers or sisters because of their birthdays.

Did she love me? Yes. Did she purposefully wish me to be disappointed and made to feel slighted? No. Tradition was tradition. We had an order of things in the Mazzone household. We stuck to it. Rules were rules.

In the same way, one could say that the way salvation history was to unfold in the world was ordered in a particular way by the will of God. However, what is amazing in the Gospel story this Sunday is that this order is allowed to be interrupted.

We know that Jesus one-ups the opposition in every single confrontation in Scripture. Whether he is called onto the carpet by pharisees, Saducees, scribes, elders, lawyers, or even Pilate himself, Jesus seems to get the upper hand when it comes to a contest of words (plucking wheat, taxes, woman caught in the act of adultery, healings on sabbath, It is you who say that I am, etc.) The opposition is crippled by their motivations. They wish to engage in dialogue with Jesus in order to threaten, to shame, to convict, to mock and to overthrow him.

What makes this woman different -- the only person in Scripture to seemingly one-up Jesus -- is that fact that her motivations are pure and selfless. She searches for a way to keep Jesus engaged in conversation by introducing the great comeback line -- even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters. She does not wish to test, to try, or threaten Jesus. She simply wants her daughter healed. The longer she can keep Jesus engaged in conversation the more of a chance she feels that she will get what she wants.

In the end, Jesus in fact gives her what she asks. Her persistence, her selflessness and her cleverness is responded to by Jesus.

We have no scriptural account of Jesus laughing, however, if I had to choose a story in which to insert such laughter this is the story I would choose. A surprised smile would lead to a hearty laugh and as Jesus throws his head back he would half laugh and half speak the words -- O woman, great is your faith!

How does all this preach? I think it tells us some important things about prayer and about the cooperation of God in our lives.

The woman recognizes Jesus as someone who can indeed heal.

The woman asks for mercy.

The woman selflessly intercedes for her daughter whom she loves.

The woman is persistent in her request.

A response is made to the woman.

These are simple actions -- recognition of divine power, a plea for mercy, a request for help, persistence in that request, and a response.

If someone has stopped praying and needs a jump-start, this might be a good weekend to remind that person of the importance and necessity of prayer -- and not only of prayer, but of persistent prayer.

Is it that God does not hear us the first time? No. Is it that God wants to toy with us and make us beg for what we want? No. Rather, it has to do with the the ways of God which are so above our ways that we can not comprehend all of the movements of His will in and around our lives. Our job is to remain within our ways, within our human ways of thinking and understanding and to simply ask for what we need, to be persistent in that request, and to wait for a response from God.

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