O Lord, we pray for the ministry of Your word — Your word which brings life, Your word which brings healing, Your word which brings a peace that passes all understanding… Come, Holy Spirit, open up the word to us. Make it alive and fresh… Amen.
– Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
The readings for the twentieth Sunday in ordinary time cycle A can be found here.
Scripture scholars will tell you that in Mark the woman is called Syrophoenician which was the modern name for the people who lived in the Phoenician part of Syria in the 1st century, while Matthew chooses to use an old-fashioned name “Canaanite.” We know from the OT that Canaan was the inheritance of the Jewish people that they had to take by force around 1400 BCE. By using the Canaanite name Matthew is not only identifying the woman geographically but is also putting her in historical context. She belongs to those people who were unclean and defeated.
The woman, for her part uses the term “Son of David” which is also a cultural reference that reinforces the relationship of Jesus to the lineage from Matthew chapter 1.
Matthew only uses “great faith” once in the Gospel and it was Jesus speaking to the Canaanite woman. This was a high commendation for the woman and shows Jesus’ generosity and compassion.
Whoever teaches you how to transform your own suffering into compassion is a true spiritual authority.
– Brian Mclaren
Scholars believe this conversation with the Canaanite woman represents the debate of the two sides in the Matthean community. There were those who wanted to have an exclusive group and promote their own cultural interests. There were also those who were advocating loyalty to Jesus without regard to national or cultural differences.
There is so much background to understand in this Gospel reading that the message can be lost. Barry Popik explains that the phrase “‘there’s no quit in him’ (also said with ‘her’) means that an athlete is relentless and doesn’t stop competing, despite the great odds.” The great faith of the woman transcended the cultural barriers that existed at the time and despite the great odds she was rewarded for having such great faith. One might say that when it comes to faith in Jesus there was no quit in the Canaanite woman.
There is a Japanese proverb that says “fall seven times, stand up eight.” This lines up perfectly with Kent M. Keith’s paradoxical commandment “give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.” The Canaanite woman was alone and a Gentile, two strikes against her in 1st century Judaism. None of that mattered because she had faith. Faith enough to stand up one more time. Faith enough to struggle through the pain of the illness of a child to give it her best effort. There was no quit in her.
If there is one thing you take away from this homily it should be that great faith always overcomes great odds. Think about those people that inspire you, whether famous or just in your circle of acquaintances. Did any have to overcome odds to make that impression on you? Is it their faith that inspires you? What about your faith inspires others? Does your faith have no quit?
I pray that in times when the odds are stacked against you that you remember the Canaanite woman. I pray that the example of those who inspire you help to buoy your faith in hard times. I pray that you give the world your very best always.