Every Sunday, we publish a wonderful new talk. Here is this week’s talk.
In this beautiful homily for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Father Hanly helps us understand that it no longer matters to Jesus which group you have come from, the only things that matter to him are your faith and your love.
Readings for Mass
First Reading: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Second Reading: Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28
Recording of Homily
Transcript of Homily
This gospel is quite short. And it’s usually overlooked because it is quite short and it seems like just a little simple story.
But if you know what’s on St Matthew’s mind, and you follow why he has this story, especially at the place where it is said, something in mind a little bit deeper than the simple story of a woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter.
So I thought maybe I’d go down through it, bit by bit, and perhaps you might come to understand how vital this is.
The first thing we do is talk about St Matthew. You know, St Matthew was an outsider. He was a tax collector. He was forbidden to go into the temple. He was forbidden to pray close to the Holy of Holies. He was, in our day, in the old days, they’d say he was excommunicated, because the kind of work he did was to join Rome in the oppression of the people. And the tax collectors were hated.
And so the first thing you have to understand is that this lady is also an outcast. She was someone not welcome among the Jewish people, something like the lady at the well.
And so we begin this little story.
Jesus went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
Why did they put him way up there? Tyre and Sidon are the northernmost points of the boundaries of those days of Palestine. And Jesus goes up there. It’s a place, though, with no Jews at all. It is mostly Canaanite people.
Now the Canaanites, as you know, were the people who were the predominant people for many centuries in what we now call Palestine and Israel. They were Semites, as all people in that area were, but they were Semites who believed in all kinds of gods. They were not Semites who believed, as Jews came to believe, in the one true God. They were the children of Abraham, but not the Semites. The Canaanite people were, in a sense, hated by the Jews, because the Canaanites hated the Jews in turn. When Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, it was against the Canaanites, who were trying to drive him and the Jewish people into the Jordan.
So the first thing we have to know is the Canaanite woman was someone who was an outcast as far as the Jewish people felt at the time. But she’s got a lot of spunk, because, in the whole history of the New Testament, she’s the only one who ever managed to change Jesus’ mind. He was set on one thing and she changed it into something quite different.
And she begins with, “Have mercy on me, Lord.” The Canaanite woman said, she was shouting at a distance, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
You hear this one, “Have mercy on me,” at Mass all the time. “Have mercy on me,” because in the language that she could speak, which was not Latin but the language of the area, and we still have it in the Mass, the Kyrie Eleison. Remember that? At the beginning of mass we say, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.” These are the words of the Canaanite. That’s exactly the translation of “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.” And Matthew knows it. “Have mercy on me, Lord.”
And then she says, “Son of David,” which is a great surprise because what she is saying is: “You are the Messiah of the Hebrews.” Because it is written in the Bible that, someday, from the house of David, there will come a Messiah and he will teach us all things.
This rather surprises everybody. You begin to think, well, maybe she needs help for her daughter, so maybe she’s just pretending. But she isn’t. This is a sincere lady, a very sincere lady, and she wants so much that Jesus, the great healer, will heal her daughter.
She says, “My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Demon you sometimes translate as devil. You think, well, it’s like devils hopping around. But it’s not. When she says a demon, she means there’s an unknown source that had unwired her. Maybe it’s schizophrenia, maybe it’s one of those terrible diseases that was a great mystery to the people of those times. Anyhow, it incapacitated her.
You remember when Jesus went into the temple, into the synagogue in Capernaum, they brought to him a man who was troubled and ill with demons, meaning that he was rolling around on the floor and he couldn’t be contained, and they were asking Jesus to heal him.
“My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
And Jesus does not answer her. And this is the first time you feel that he’s failing someone. He remains silent. And the silence is almost as if he didn’t want to say anything at all.
And his disciples came and they started urging him, saying, “Send her away because she keeps shouting at us and following us.” And they wanted to heal her, because that’s what you do with somebody that’s troubling you: you kind of try to treat them nicely in hopes they’ll get out of there and go someplace else. But Jesus is still quiet.
But he says this, when the woman comes, first of all he says to the disciples, and he says it truthfully, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Why are you asking me to heal this pagan woman, this woman who is rejected by the Jewish community because she is a pagan woman and has no truck with us, who belongs to an enemy nation.”
And they don’t know what to say, because Jesus sounds even worse now. It sounds like kind of nice guy Jesus has gone someplace and he is all with a different kind of feeling.
But Jesus wants them to hear this, because what he says is true. He was sent to the house of Israel. He was sent only to the Jews. And rightfully so. Rightfully so, because they are the ones that for centuries carried the faith and belief in the one true God, in nation upon nation of paganism, a paganism that was rather ruthless and challenged them and yet they remained faithful and true.
And it was only right that Jesus, the Messiah, who they prayed for and hoped for ever since Moses said to them, “There will someone coming after me and he will open you to understanding everything.”
But the woman, she’s not having that. She comes actually up to him. She is yelling from a distance, because she doesn’t dare approach the holy man and she is afraid even to talk to him.
But she has courage now, and so she comes in and she kneels at his feet. This is a gesture that you are in the presence of something like God Himself. She kneels at his feet and she says to Jesus, “Lord, help me.” No apology, but a kind of a feeling that: “I have come this way alone with my poor child and I don’t know where else to go. I tried everything, but nothing seems to be able to heal her. And now I come to you and I beg you, I beg you, Lord, help me.”
One of the writers has an aside. He says, “How often do you pass beggars on the street? And how often do you hear those words, I beg you for this and I beg you for that. We just pass them right on by.”
So we understand this and now we know that, in Matthew, he’s not talking to the people of his day, he’s talking to us. We are the ones who come here each Sunday. We are the ones who welcome the Messiah. But what about all the people outside, especially the ones that find difficulty with us? Do we really, when they come in need for one thing or another, do we really welcome them into our hearts?
Matthew doesn’t give you the answer. He just gives you the problem.
“Lord, help me.”
And Jesus says something that’s the harshest of all when Jesus says to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food, the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
The Israelites used to call the Canaanites dogs. It’s the way some of us call foreigners in Hong Kong gweilo. They got so used to it, it wasn’t really so bad coming from Jesus, because it was a common thing. Instead of saying, “Here comes a little Canaanite,” they’d go, “Here comes a little dog.” And they got so used to it so maybe it didn’t have the (inaudible word).
But I think Matthew wants you to know that Jesus is doing something else. He’s trying to teach Matthew, who knows what it is to be rejected, he’s trying to teach the disciples you don’t throw people away and shove them away because they’re not one of your own kind, because they do not share your faith.
But that’s what, on the other hand, remember, the Jews had kept faith for all these centuries or we wouldn’t have what we have today: Mass, Communion and all the wonderful things that come with being Christians.
And this is where the true stripes of the lady comes through. Instead of being silent and taking her little child home, she says to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, it is not fair to take children’s food and throw it to the dogs, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
What she’s saying: “Even I accept you for what you really say you are. You are the Messiah, the One who has come, not just to the Jews, but to all of us.”
And she is demanding that he does something about her poor little girl.
And what does Jesus do?
He surrenders. He knows he has come only for the Jews. He also knows that he has come to a world that is full of pain and full of sorrow. And he says to her, “Woman, great is your faith and let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
And then there is the great revelation, which you probably missed. It is not whether you are Jew or Gentile. It is not whether you come from one group or another group. It doesn’t matter what your history is. It doesn’t matter when you were born. It doesn’t matter what you do. The only thing that matters, Jesus says, are two things, and he finds them both in her:
First, “Great is your faith.” It is your faith. Now, faith doesn’t mean that she believes that Jesus would heal her daughter. Faith means: “I give my life into your hands. Do what you want, but heal my daughter and I will believe and I know you can do this.”
And, of course, the other thing is faith and love. Because she loved her daughter so much that she endured the ridicule of everybody that was against her, to come down and to be yelling and screaming and asking for help from people that she knew despised her.
And that’s why we all feel that the whole history of the church changed and Jesus himself learned a great lesson: that God’s love is for everybody.
And the way to discover God? Two things: we must have faith and we must learn to love.
And if you have faith and love, then the third missing ingredient, hope, will always be in your heart and you will find, because of the (inaudible word) that to follow Jesus is to follow, in joy, the Saviour of the world.
And God, finally, doesn’t just look upon the Jews, or even the Catholics or the Christians, He looks upon everybody in the world as welcome to His table.
And now I will go back and just read the opening prayer. We pray this:
God of all the nations, to your table are invited and in your family no one is a stranger. Satisfy the hunger of those gathered in this house of prayer. Mercifully extend, to all the peoples in the world, the joy of your love, the joy of salvation and the joy of the faith that Jesus gives each and every one of us when we say “Hallowed be Thy name.”
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This homily was delivered on 14th August 2011.
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