GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
So the Gospel reading is from Matthew 15:21-8, and this is what it says:
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon."
But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying after us."
He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me."
And he answered, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."
She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."
Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.
Okay, so what's going on here?
Let’s walk through it and make a few points and put it in context.
Number one, notice where Jesus is, the geography matters here.
He is in the district of Tyre and Sidon.
These were Gentile territories that were to the north of what we consider the holy land today, in the realm known as Phoenicia.
So they're predominantly Gentile, and it is in that geographical area that a Gentile woman, a Canaanite woman, comes to him and asks him to deliver her daughter from demonic possession — which is something that was very frequent, especially in the pagan territories.
Now what does it mean to call her a Canaanite woman?
Well if you recall, if you go back to the Old Testament book of Genesis, chapter 10, verse 15, it actually says that Sidon — that name Sidon which became a name for the territory — was a firstborn son, the firstborn son of Canaan, who was the great ancestor, in the book of Genesis, of many of the enemies of Israel, chief among them the Canaanites, the people who lived in the land of Canaan in the holy land before the Israelites came in and conquered them and dwelt in the land at the time of Joshua and Judges.
So this woman isn't just a Gentile.
She isn’t even just a pagan.
She belongs to the Canaanites, which of all the pagan peoples, were the most immersed not just in idolatry, but in immorality, and had a history for being the enemies of Israel.
They were at war constantly with Israel in the Old Testament.
If you want an example of the way in which the Canaanites as a people symbolized wickedness to the people of Israel, you can read the book of Wisdom 12.
It just goes through all the various sins and immoralities that were practiced by the Canaanites, especially at the time of Joshua and Judges.
Not only did they worship false gods, but they sacrificed their children to demons.
It was bad.
So the Canaanites were almost this living symbol of a wicked people to the people of Israel.
And yet this woman, who is a Gentile and is a Canaanite, comes up to Jesus and says “have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
Now what is interesting about that approach?
This shows you first and foremost, this is no ordinary Canaanite, right!?
She’s coming to Jesus and begging him for mercy, and using the title, the royal title, “Son of David” when she is addressing him.
Honoring him, in a sense, as King, as Messiah, as the ruler of the people of Israel — which is a lot more than Jesus got from some of his contemporaries living in the holy land.
Many of them rejected him, but this Canaanite woman recognizes him.
Also, I might just note here, that the expression “have mercy on me, Lord” — eleēson me, kyrie
in the Greek — is where we get Kyrie Eleison
from in the Mass.
When we say Kyrie Eleison
, that expression — although most people think it is Latin — is actually Greek and it is from the New Testament.
So this is a plea for mercy.
Now how does Jesus respond to this extraordinary plea and this honor that the woman gives him?
He ignores her, he doesn’t say anything.
He doesn't answer her a word.
Now that is very mysterious, and frankly, kind of rude, right!?
I mean it comes off as if he is being rude to her.
If someone came up to you and gave you a title of honor and begged you for mercy, would you not say anything?
What is Jesus up to here
Notice though, on the other hand, Jesus doesn't send her away.
The disciples, when they encounter her, say “Lord, please send her away, she's crying after us.”
In other words, “she is annoying.”
They are getting aggravated by her.
They are probably, frankly, a little uncomfortable with her, given the fact that she is obviously a Gentile and a Canaanite and she's coming and supplicating Jesus for mercy.
Jesus, notice, on the one hand he ignores her, which appears to be rude, it appears to dismissive, on the other hand he doesn't send her away, he just sits there silent.
And then when the Apostles ask him to send her away, he responds with a mysterious saying.
He says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Now what does that mean?
Well if you look at that in context, this has to do with the fact that as the Messiah, Jesus is sent on his mission during his earthly life, during his public ministry, he is sent first and foremost, and only, as he says here, to the house of Israel.
So although Jesus would go into foreign territories, and on occasion he does encounter non-Israelites, like the Gerasene demoniac, who was clearly a pagan, his mission, the people he goes to, the people he seeks after, are what he calls “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Now I could go into so much about this, I did a whole dissertation on this whole question of the 10 lost tribes of Israel and of the descendents of the northern kingdom, which were called Israelites, who had been exiled and scattered since the time of Assyria, in the eighth century B.C.
Around 722 B.C., the northern 10 tribes of Israel were forcibly deported by the Assyrians, they were scattered among the nations, and then the Assyrians settled Gentile peoples in the northern kingdom — those are the ancestors of the Samaritans.
So there was an expectation in Judaism at the time of Jesus, that one day the 10 lost tribes of Israel would be gathered back into the promised land, they would be brought back into the promised land at the time of the Messiah, and that one of the jobs of the Messiah would be to gather the lost tribes of Israel, so that all 12 tribes would be reunited under one king, and then the kingdom of God would be established on earth.
So when Jesus says “I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” we have to be clear here.
Most of us think he means “I was sent only to the Jews and not to the Gentiles,” and that's partially correct.
But what he really means is, “although I'm in Gentile territory, in the northern territories, Galilee, Tyre, Sidon, my mission is to gather the lost tribes of Israel.
My mission is to gather the scattered sheep, the remnant so to speak, of those northern Israelites, of which there were some still living in his day, like Anna of the tribe of Asher.
She was a prophetess down in the Temple.
She's not technically speaking a Jew.
In other words, she's not descended from the southern tribes of Judah, she's a Northerner, she's an Israelite from one of the tribes of Israel.
So Jesus uses this image of the scattered sheep of Israel to describe his mission, and we will see this elsewhere in the New Testament.
If you read all the way to the end of the Gospel of Matthew, after the resurrection Jesus is going to tell the Apostles “now go to all nations…preach the good news to all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
That is the great commission.
But he doesn’t send them to the Gentiles until after the resurrection, because there is an order to salvation history.
As St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans 1:16, “to the Jew first and then to the Greek.”
In other words, God's message of salvation is first given to his chosen people and then through them it goes out to all the nations of the world, after the resurrection.
So basically what Jesus is saying here is “I wasn't sent to the Gentiles during my earthly ministry.”
Now how does the woman respond?
Well she could have just gone away dejected, he has already ignored her and then said he was only sent to Israelites.
But instead she persists and it says “she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”
So she takes it up a notch.
She kneels before him and it is interesting here, the Greek expression is proskyneō.
We've seen this elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew when the Apostles proskyneō
But notice the English translation here is different.
When the Apostles proskyneō,
when they fall down on their knees before Jesus, the English translations is “they worshiped him.”
When the Gentile woman proskyneōs,
the English translation says that “she knelt before him.”
So it is ambiguous.
You could say here, you could translate it, given everything else in Matthew, that “she worshiped him” and said “Lord, help me.”
Now either way, however you translate it, she clearly venerates him and begs him as Lord to help her and to help her daughter.
Now what does Jesus say to that?
He still resists and says “it's not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”
Now in ancient times as well as today, this would be an insult.
To compare someone to a dog would be an insult.
You can see this elsewhere in the New Testament.
For example, in Philippians 3:2, Paul is talking about his opponents and he says “beware of the dogs.”
These were the ones who were insisting that circumcision was necessary for salvation.
In the book of Revelation 22:15, it says that “outside the heavenly Jerusalem are the dogs.”
It's a way of referring to people who were sinners, who were unclean.
And in this context, what Jesus is doing is giving a kind of parable in which the children represent the Israelites and the dogs represent the unclean Gentiles.
So what Jesus is saying here is “it's not right to take the food of the children, namely the Israelites, and feed it to the dogs, namely the Gentiles.
And if you think about this, if you have a dog in your house you know what this means.
You don't take the food off the table — hopefully you don’t — and give it to the the family pet instead of feeding your children.
There is and order even within the family.
Children eat first and then the dogs would eat the scraps that were left over, that was customary in ancient Israel.
If you had any scraps leftover, well then you give it to the dogs.
So Jesus is saying this is out of order.
You don't take the children's food and give it to the dogs.
You don’t take the salvation that is supposed to come to Israel first and give it first to the Gentiles.
So how does the woman respond?
Again she persists, she is not going anywhere until she gets some healing for her daughter.
So she flips it around and says to Jesus, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.”
And that's the breaking point.
“Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
At that moment she is healed.
So what is going on in this story?
Well let me give you a little clue here.
First, let’s go back to the Old Testament...
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Now what he says here is:
Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. (Romans 11:13b-14)
So what’s that talking about? Well, that’s Paul saying what I just said in his own words. Although Paul’s mission is primarily
to the Gentiles, it’s not exclusively to the Gentiles. Paul has not cast his fellow Jews aside in his mission of bringing the Gospel. And you can see this with another quote from 1 Corinthians—another letter of Paul. So it’s not in Romans, but this is the background. Listen to these words from 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, about Paul’s universal mission. He says this:
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
That’s Paul’s missionary strategy. He wants to save everyone. He wants the Gospel to come to everyone. So in Romans 11, what he’s saying is, I’m magnifying my ministry among the Gentiles, not because I’ve rejected my Jewish brothers and sisters, but because I want them to see the conversions that are happening among the Gentiles to make them jealous, so to speak—he’s speaking a little hyperbolically there—so that I might save some of them.
So you see, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is not a rejection of his fellow Jews and of his fellow Israelites. That’s the first point I want to make here, because again, there’s a pernicious error that runs around out there...and has run around at least since the second century AD at the time of Marcion, who was one of the first great arch-heretics in the early Church. And what Marcion did was he pitted the Old Testament against the New Testament. And he pitted the God of Israel against the God of the Christians. And he said...he basically described the Old Testament God as a god of wrath and judgment and as a different god than the New Testament God.
And one version of that Marcionite heresy of two different gods has been, and I’ve encountered this before in certain students who will assume “Well, in the Old Testament God chooses the Jewish people, the Israelites, and reject the pagans. And in the New Testament, He changes His mind and He chooses the Gentiles and rejects the Jewish people.” So it’s kind of schizophrenic god who is capricious in his election or rejection of different groups of people.
And this is a common—actually, it’s not just my students. Contemporary atheists will often have that kind of a view of the Bible—think of the God of the Bible as this capricious god who’s just picking certain favorites among the human race and then rejecting other groups of people. That is totally, totally wrong and totally a caricature...more than just a caricature. It’s an egregious misinterpretation of the Bible itself. Already in the Old Testament, you can see that God has His sights set on all the peoples of the world being saved through Israel.
And the same thing is true in the New Testament. Paul himself in Romans is emphasizing that God has not rejected His people, the Chosen People are not rejected, because the Gospel is now going to all—both Jew and Gentile. It’s not a reversal of the election of Israel in the Old Testament. But some people think that’s what Paul is saying because of the next verse. So if you look at the next verse, what does Paul say? He says:
For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?
Okay, notice the expression “their rejection.” You could read it in two ways. You could read it as them (meaning Israel) being rejected by God, like they’re the object of His rejection. Or you could read it as them rejecting the Gospel or the Good News about Christ. In other words, they’re the subjects of the rejection. And many people who take up that caricature that I brought up earlier would read it the first way. They would argue: “Ah, look, see Paul says that the Jewish people are rejected by God.”
But we know that’s not what Paul means, because Paul himself—at the beginning of the chapter, Romans 11—says this:
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!
Okay, so a little rule for you. If you want to know what Romans 11:15 means, it’s helpful to go back to the beginning of the chapter and read it in context. So if at the beginning of the chapter Paul says God has not rejected His people, and then he makes an ambiguous statement about their rejection, then you’ve got two ways you can read it. You have to take the second one, meaning them rejecting Jesus’ Messiahship, not God rejecting them as a people, because he’s already made clear that that’s not the case. In fact, he’s emphatically insisted on that not being the case at the beginning of Romans 11.
So what he’s talking about here is—what he is
saying is—if the rejection of Jesus’ Messiahship by the majority of the Israelite people meant the reconciliation of the world. In other words, if that becomes the catalyst, the springboard, for the Gospel going out to the pagans, then what will their acceptance of Jesus’ Messiahship mean but life from the dead?
In other words, Paul here is laying the foundation for the common eschatological expectation in the Church—in the history of the Church—that before Christ’s second coming, before the final resurrection of the dead, there would be a kind of mass conversion or acceptance of Jesus’ Messiahship by a large number of the Jewish people. That’s where that tradition—if you’ve ever wondered where that comes from—that comes from in part from this verse right here...Romans 11:15.
So in Paul’s mind...in other words, what Paul is saying is, “If I’m the apostle to the Gentiles, I’m trying to get as many Gentiles to become Christians as possible so that my fellow Jews will see it and recognize and accept Jesus as the Messiah.” And in doing so, that mass acceptance of Jesus as Messiah will usher in or, so to speak, inaugurate the final coming of Jesus, the final resurrection of the dead.
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