Father Leslie Hoppe, OFM

Aug. 20: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Speak for the voiceless

Is 56:1, 6-7; Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8; Rom 11:13-15, 29-32; Mt 15:21-28

Parents who have a desperately ill child will do anything to relieve their child’s suffering. They’ll travel the length of the country searching for a physician who can treat their child. They’ll spare no expense to pay for their child’s treatment. They’ll put aside every other responsibility to be with and comfort their child.

The mother in today’s Gospel is seeking someone to relieve the suffering of her daughter, who was being tormented by an evil power that the women herself was powerless to overcome. The women reaches out to Jesus, who had a reputation as a powerful exorcist. Though she is not a Jew, she does not hesitate to beg for help from Jesus, but she is met with silence. Jesus’ silence is astonishing.

Jesus did not even acknowledge the woman’s request, though Jesus always responded to people who asked for his help. Here, however, Jesus pays no attention to the desperate mother. This is the only instance in the Gospels where Jesus ignores a person who approaches him in need. But the woman persists. She cries out again, “Lord, help me.” Jesus’ reply to the woman’s second plea is even more shocking than his initial silence. He says to the woman, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” First, Jesus is silent, and when he does speak, he belittles the poor woman. But she will not give up: “Please, Lord, even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” 

This Canaanite woman would not be deterred from finding help for her daughter. She did not care that she was ignored, insulted or disregarded. She did not trade insult for insult, but she was not going to take “no” for an answer. Her reply to Jesus’ rejection of her plea was more than a matter of matching wits with Jesus. It was an act of faith in the power and compassion of God that Jesus could extend to her if he so wished. Marveling at the woman’s words, Jesus replies, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

The encounter with the Canaanite woman was a turning point in Jesus’ understanding of his identity and mission. This powerful story shows how Jesus came to recognize the Canaanite woman and her afflicted daughter not as outsiders unworthy of his concern but as his own — sisters in need. Jesus had instructed his disciples to limit their mission to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 10:5-6). Jesus had followed that same limitation in his ministry until the Canaanite women led him to see his ministry in a new, more inclusive light.

Matthew’s inclusion of this story in his account of Jesus’ ministry was an important component of the evangelist’s view of the church’s mission. Matthew likely composed his Gospel for a community of Jewish Christians. He valued the Jewish matrix of the Gospel (see Mt 5:17-19). Nonetheless, he recognized that the Gospel was meant for all people. He saw that restricting the proclamation of the coming of God’s reign to Jews was a temporary measure, since Jesus’ final instruction called for making disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19).

The child who was tormented by a demon had no one to speak for her except her mother, who would not give up until she persuaded Jesus to help her daughter. Today there are many people who need someone to speak for them. There are the poor and powerless: the people living on fixed incomes; migrants; people suffering because of prejudice based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation; those suffering from political oppression or economic exploitation; the unjustly imprisoned, the homeless … . The list of our sisters and brothers in need could go on.

The Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel challenges us to speak out strongly and persistently for those without a voice. Like her, we will find out that our efforts will make a difference. We can be agents of positive change if we do not allow ourselves to be discouraged or deterred from speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves.


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