August 16, 2014

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH


(Click here for today’s readings)

The image is a familiar one: one or more dogs begging while you are at table, ready to pounce on whatever falls from the table, if not actively “demanding tribute,” as my brother’s Chihuahua “Rosy” does. Cute, if you like that sort of thing.

But there is nothing cute about the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in this Gospel. I once read an author, bent on finding humor in the Bible, who claimed that this was just a friendly little repartee, what Webster’s Dictionary describes as “amusing and usually light sparring with words.”  I couldn’t disagree more. The scene presented here by Matthew is no game of wits!

Let me digress briefly with a little trip down memory lane:


The point isn’t the music, the Gregorian chant or any other classic settings. The point isn’t the Latin Mass vs. English. It isn’t even that “Kyrie eleison” isn’t Latin at all, but Greek.

What is the point? It’s that we find those very same Greek words in today’s Gospel, and the point is especially what they mean.

The woman says “Eleison me kyrie.” This is translated in the Lectionary as “Have pity on me, Lord,” but it means equally well, “Have mercy on me, Lord.” Now leave out the middle word, change the order and there you have it: Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy.

She knows that as a foreigner she really has no claim on the one she calls “Son of David.” That doesn’t stop her.

Maybe she’s stubborn by nature. Maybe she’s had a hard life and is used to fighting for what she wants. Personally, I think the simple answer is the best: she’s a mother. And even if she has to accept being insulted by a famous teacher and healer, she accepts it, for her daughter’s sake.

But there is another reason why she doesn’t hold back. Jesus recognizes it, tests it, praises it, and rewards it. It is her “great faith”! (This woman, by the way, is one of the two foreigners I alluded to last week who are described as having “great” faith in the Gospels.)

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” we read in Isaiah. In this story we see a partial fulfillment of that prophecy. It’s no longer about a place, much less a single building situated in Jerusalem. It’s about Jesus and the community of believers gathered around him. It’s about the universal Church.

It seems everyone knows people who get in touch only when they need something. Often enough, however, that describes our prayer. The Canaanite woman might never have approached Jesus if her daughter hadn’t been sick. But in that moment, he saw her faith. and that was all that mattered. The same great faith that brought her to him in tears sent her back home to her daughter in grateful joy.

It is perfectly natural that we come to the Lord in our need. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:  “What do you possess that you have not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting as if you did not receive it?”

When we look at ourselves, and at our needs, and at what we actually deserve, and then we come to Jesus, what are we if not beggars at the Lord’s table?

No wonder we cry “Lord, have mercy!” at the beginning of every Mass! After that, however, reassured of his love, we are in a position to fulfill the other line in Isaiah’s prophecy where God predicts, “I will make them joyful in my house of prayer.”

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