Imagine you or someone in your family has just had a serious health problem that has depleted your cash reserves, or your son or daughter has been accepted to a good university and now you have to pay for the tuition, or someone totaled your car and the insurance company didn’t give you enough money to buy another car. Whatever the circumstance, through no fault of your own, you need money.
Your neighbor tells you about a wonderful loan officer at the local bank, so you make an appointment to see him. You walk into the bank and when you say that you want to see the loan officer the person at the front desk is very rude to you. Then you go to the loan officer and he says that there is no way that you are getting a loan from this bank. Your skin is the wrong color, you don’t wear nice clothes, you’re a woman, you have a tattoo.
How would you react? In your deepest need, you’ve gone to someone you believed would help you and instead, you’re insulted. Because you are somehow different, you’re not welcome at the bank. Now I don’t actually want you to tell me what you would have done in that situation – after all, we are in church.
But think about how the Canaanite woman in the gospel today must have felt. Her daughter was very ill – tormented by a demon. She had heard about this wonderful and powerful man – Jesus – who could surely heal her daughter. “Help me” she said. Jesus responded by saying that it was not right for him to heal someone who was a Canaanite – a pagan – because his mission was to the Jews. And he didn’t say it very nicely: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” This would be like the loan officer saying: “You are not the kind of person that we loan money to.”
Jesus wasn’t being a nasty person – he was making a point. In a very dramatic way he was saying: “I was sent to preach first to the Jews – and that’s very important. But – my message is for everyone. The kingdom of God is for everyone.” In the second reading, St. Paul gave us that same sense of really wanting the Jews to accept the gospel of Jesus. He said that although he was going to preach to the gentiles – the non-Jews – with all his energy, he was hoping that at least some of the Jews might hear his message and accept Jesus Christ. In some ways, the idea of inclusiveness that we heard about in the gospel and from St. Paul is stated in an even more radical way in the first reading, written long before the birth of Christ. Isaiah said that if non-Jews believed and lived according to the principles of justice and righteousness (the principles that the Jewish religion was based on), they could even come into the temple. It was unheard of that non-Jews would enter the temple, and yet that’s the invitation that Isaiah was making.
It’s important for us as Catholics to understand this part of our history. For the first decade after the death of Jesus, the followers of Jesus were Jews – the apostles were Jews. With that understanding, the reactions of the apostles in the Gospel, and even the reactions of Jesus toward a non-Jewish woman who asked for help were understandable – sort of.
The word Catholic means universal – it means everyone is welcome – and the readings today celebrate the “catholic” or universal character of our church.
So what can we learn from the Canaanite woman? We can learn that even when we don’t feel especially welcome in the church or even by God, we truly are welcome. The Canaanite woman, who was clearly on the outside, discovered this, but only because of her strong faith and her persistence in asking for Jesus’ help.
I think sometimes, we who are Catholic (we who are on the inside) don’t even feel welcome in our own Church. Well, look around – go ahead – look at the people around you. These are your fellow Christians – believers in Jesus Christ – just like you. And we are all part of the Catholic (universal) family – the Church. We don’t call ourselves the Catholic individuals, we are the Catholic Church. Our faith is not something locked up inside us – our Catholic faith connects us with each other. When you come to Mass, you’re usually greeted at the door. At the end of Mass, you’re greeted again as you leave. During the Mass, we turn to each other and offer a sign of peace. These are more than just symbols – they are real ways that we share God’s love with each other and express our connectedness with each other in Jesus Christ.
If the loan officer had understood that he and the person who needed a loan were members of the same family, he wouldn’t have insulted the needy person who came to the bank for help.
When Jesus responded to the Canaanite woman, he wasn’t insulting her. He was testing the woman’s faith. And after being rejected, the woman demonstrated her great faith by her persistence. In the end, Jesus praised her faith and healed her daughter. He invited her in.
The message of today’s readings is that we have all been welcomed into God’s family. Many of us (hopefully, all of us) have accepted that invitation. As members of Christ’s body – the Catholic Church – we often turn to God in times of need – as we should. Just like the Canaanite woman, our faith should give us the strength to appeal to God in times of need. We know that sometimes God doesn’t respond in a way or on a schedule that satisfies us. But just like the Canaanite woman, we must have faith and persistence. God will respond to the members of his family – and you can take that to the bank.