Sunday, August 17, 2014


   Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A  

Ever wonder what a dog thinks?
            Hey, these people I live with love me, feed me,
            provide me with a warm, dry house,
            pet me, and take such good care of me…they must be gods!

And ever wonder what a cat thinks?
            Hey, these people I live with love me, feed me,
            provide me with a warm, dry house,
            pet me, and take such good care of me…I must be a god!

In this Sunday’s gospel, we find Jesus hounded
by a persistent Canaanite mother
desperate for her daughter’s liberation.
The Lord’s pursuer is doubly an outsider:
a woman in a man’s world;
a pagan foreigner—a Gentile—approaching a righteous Jew.
The simplest response—
and the one most of us, I think, would have expected—
would have been for Jesus to just give her what she wants…
…and get her off his case.
That seems to be the approach his disciples favored.

How Christ responds to her is quite startling, to say the least.
At her first request, he makes no reply at all.
At her second, he brushes her off as a dog.
You must understand:
dogs then did not hold the lofty status
they currently enjoy in American culture—
where they’re frequently equal to kids or grandkids.
There’s no softening Jesus’ remark:
he’s not affectionately calling her he “sweet little pup.”
In Jewish law, dogs were considered unclean,
since they scavenged for their food.
To call someone a “dog” was an humiliating insult.

But this woman will not be deterred by either silence or scorn.
A third time she pleads—
and this time, Jesus not only grants her wish, but sings her praises.
Last week, after the scene on the stormy sea,
Jesus called Peter a man of “little faith.”
(We can only assume he was thinking much the same
about all his cowering  Apostles.)
Yet now, just a few verses later,
he tells this bold stranger: “O woman, great is your faith!”

What is going on here?!?

What if Jesus is acting so peculiarly this Sunday
because he wants to make sure this woman—
and all who would hear her story till the end of time—
might realize he’s much more than a wonderworker on demand?
Maybe Jesus holds back—even provokes and challenges—
in order to purify her motives,
to make clear what she really desires;
not to drive the Canaanite mother away, but to draw her closer.
In other words: Maybe Jesus is just playing hard to get.
The woman in the gospel had not studied the law and the prophets.
She hadn’t witnessed Jesus curing the sick or raising the dead.
We have no idea if she’s previously led a life of virtue or vice.
But she had heard rumors—
incredible stories circulating about this man—
and they stirred something deep within her heart.
She somehow felt that she could trust him—could believe in him—
and he was going to take advantage of this openness.
The Canaanite woman fully intended
to obtain a cure for her daughter;
Jesus fully intended to obtain something more:
to draw this woman 
into a personal and lasting relationship with him.

I remember being struck in high school
when one of my teachers pointed out
that many people play religion as if God were a slot machine:
if I just do the right things, say the right prayers,
push all the right buttons,
then God will dole out what I’m asking—
like some supernatural Pez dispenser.
Experience has sadly taught me
that that teacher was probably right—
assuming, that is, that many people approach Christ
the way they approach his Church:
Just give me what I want—
no fuss, no muss, no strings attached.

My friends,
the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman
ought to make us see that what’s of greatest consequence
is not how much we know about the Bible or our catechism
(although such knowledge is a big help);
is not whether we’ve received all our sacraments
(although they are certainly vehicles of God’s grace);
is not a question of giving to Church or charity
(although such are surely godly deeds).
No, what’s truly fundamental—but so commonly overlooked—
is growing in a one-on-one relationship with Jesus Christ.
Do you know Jesus in a living, personal way?
Do you really love him?
Do you trust him above anything and anyone else?

Jesus knows best how to get through
to each one of us, in every different circumstance:
sometimes, that’s to answer us right away;
sometimes, it’s to make us wait;
sometimes, it’s to get us to plead and beg;
always, it’s to try and draw us closer—
to get us to put all our faith and hope in him.

So don’t think like a cat—
believing that everything revolves around you;
expecting all good things to come as your due.
Instead, curl up like a dog at the Divine Master’s feet—
the Lord who unfailingly provides for you;
who sometimes disciplines and denies you;
who always, always loves you,
and longs for you to love and trust him in return.

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