Following is the prepared text from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
August 20, 2017
Imagine what a heavy burden the Canaanite woman was carrying. What great battles she must have waged against discouragement. Day after day, she saw her child “tormented by a demon.” Perhaps this had gone on for years, tempting her to despair. After all, she had no means to drive out demons. Where, then, did she find the inner strength to get up each day and continue the battle for the sake of her daughter? She had faith! How God gave her this gift, we do not know, but we do know that, when Jesus withdrew to the Canaanite region of Tyre and Sidon, she came to Him and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” She did not call Jesus “Sir,” she called Him “Lord.” She believed He is the Son of David, God’s own Son, the Master and Lord of all. Even though she had never met Him, she must have heard people speak of Him: how He cleansed a leper, healed the servant of a Roman centurion and a woman who had suffered 12 years from a hemorrhage, and she heard that He had cast out demons from two Gadarenes. If He freed Gadarenes from demons, Jesus would certainly help her child. So, even without meeting Him, this Canaanite woman believed He could and indeed would expel the demon from her dear child. And here He was in her home town.
When this woman called out to Him, however, “Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.” But she was not dismayed. Even though she had never seen Jesus, she had for some time been begging Him to help her child and not given up when He seemed not to answer. Somehow, she knew that the Lord allows faith to be tested. So, she was not discouraged when Jesus’ disciples came and asked Him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” She kept her eyes fixed on Jesus.
Then, Jesus tested her faith even further; He said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Since neither this woman nor her daughter belonged to the house of Israel, these words of Jesus were not exactly music to her ears. Nonetheless, she did not give up. On the contrary, it moved her to a deeper level of faith. She now engaged in one of the most profound expressions of faith, adoration! “…the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, ‘Lord, help me’.” As the Canaanite mother persevered in asking help for her daughter, her faith became stronger. She became like the Magi, also not of the Tribe of Israel, who nonetheless traveled thousands of miles for one purpose only: to kneel and adore, to pay homage to Jesus, the Lord and King.
But then, Jesus put her faith to the most difficult test of all; He said, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” How did she continue to believe? It could be, as some have contended, that the look on Jesus’ face and the tone of His voice spoke of love and not rejection. It is helpful to know that there are two words in Greek for dogs: kunaria and kyon. He did not use “kyon,” which means wild dogs who threaten people’s lives, but instead “kunaria,” which refers to dogs that are pets. This woman knew that many Jews regularly referred to Canaanites as “kyons,” i.e. as “vicious Gentile dogs.” But instead, Jesus took this commonly used Jewish insult and transformed it by His love. So, without hesitation, the woman, using the word “kunaria,” said: “Please, Lord, for even the [little] dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their master.” She was happy to think of herself and daughter as members of His household, as His favorite pets. Notice, then, how at once Jesus granted her prayer, saying: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
You and I can learn a great deal from the Canaanite woman’s faith. She inspires us to persevere, even when it seems God is not listening, even when others tell us to give up hope, even when God says things we don’t understand. Prayer is not magic. We don’t control God. He is the Lord; we are the little ones of His household. Recall that, at the Last Supper, Jesus called the Apostles, “Children.” When we pray, we do not change God’s mind. Rather, we ask Him to change our hearts. We open our souls to the Lord; we put childlike trust in Him. The Canaanite woman teaches us all to pray constantly and not lose heart; she reminds us that children have a right to expect their parents and teachers to pray for them. May this beautifully renovated church, and every home of this parish, truly be “a house of prayer” where faith in the Lord is fully alive.