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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Faith of A Pagan: Matthew 15:21-28

The story of the persistent Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 is taken by the Catechism as an example of prayer borne out of deep faith (CCC, 2610). In fact, the figure of the Canaanite woman and her persistence in asking for the Lord's help reminds one of Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), the Parables of Persistent Prayer in Luke (cf. Luke 11:5-10;18:2-5). And while it can be compared to the case of the Roman centurion as an example of a healing at a distance, (Mt. 8:5-13), the case of the Canaanite woman is distinguished by the fact that here, her request was granted after being rebuffed.

Jesus' initial rejection of the request of the woman for help is justified in 15:24: "I was sent after the lost sheep of Israel." This has led some interpreters to think that the story probably came from a time in Jesus' ministry when the restoration of the people of Israel was foremost in his thoughts. However, the fact that Jesus relents to the woman at the end in recognition of her genuine faith, the story probably became an inspiration for the early Christian missionaries when these in turn found themselves in Gentile lands. Hence, this narrative provides a type for the Church in mission to the Gentiles.

This gospel narrative is paired with Romans 11:13-15.29-32 for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year A. This is interesting because Augustine has a sermon on the Canaanite woman where he makes side comments on this section of Romans (Sermon 77).

But why were the natural branches rightly broken off? (cf. Rom. 11:17a) Pride. And the wild olive rightly grafted in (Rom. 11:17b)? Humility. That's why this woman said: "Yes, Lord, for even the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of the master" and why he said in reply: "O woman, great is your faith!"

In this sermon, Augustine had been explaining to his audience their connection to the Canaanite woman:

With these words ("I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel") the question arises: how did we come from the gentiles into Christ's sheepfold, if he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel? What is the meaning of this profoundly mysterious maneuver by which the Lord, knowing full well why he had come, which was of course to have a Church among all the nations, said he had only been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel?

Thus, from this opening question, he explains the story as a prefiguration of what happens in the time of the apostles when they -- especially in the person of St. Paul -- preached the gospel to the Gentiles and made possible the "grafting" of the wild olive branches of gentility into the tree that is Israel.

The story of the persistent Canaanite woman therefore has a typological sense. It also has a moral sense which Augustine does not hesitate to pound into his audience:

So notice, brothers and sisters, how it is above all humility that is being recommended to us in this woman who was a Canaanite, that is, who came from gentility and was a type -- that is, a representation -- of the Church.

...

Let's learn, let's keep humility. If we haven't got any yet, let's learn it. If we don't have it, let us not lose it. If we haven't yet got it, let's get it andbe grafted in. If we already have it, let's keep it and not be broken off.

The story of the Canaanite woman is rich. It can be seen as an example of the persistence of a mother who loves her daughter or the humility of a pagan in front of the Lord or even a reminder of how the Lord refuses a request so as to make one's desire more intense. There is a lot of meat here but all derives from the humble woman whom the Lord praises in the end: "Oh woman, how great is your faith!"

Posted by bible student at 11:05 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, August 10, 2005 11:46 PM
Categories: Liturgy, New Testament
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