August 19, 2017

The Kyrie Eleison, Christ and the Canaanite Woman


Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.

[T]here 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:

[Click on this link:] Kyrie eleison from the Missa de Angelis

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.

Excerpted from Fr. Butler’s Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.

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