Twentieth Sunday- A
St. Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century founder of the Jesuits, emphasized a particular way of scriptural prayer with his followers. He suggested that a person should focus on a scripture passage and begin to imagine the scene in the mind’s eye. Imagine the terrain, the characters, and the circumstances, much like a novelist or director would envision setting the stage to tell a story.
Ignatius’ method of prayer opens the imagination up to the movement of God’s spirit, a type of daydream directed and rooted in biblical passages. The venerated saint would even encourage us to place ourselves in the scene as an additional character, transporting ourselves to a different place and time, hoping to learn the messages and truths more deeply.
The Ignatian method is very well suited to today’s Gospel, with an encounter with a Canaanite mother pleading with Jesus to exorcize the demon tormenting her daughter. The Canaanites were descendants of Canaan, who first appeared in scripture as the grandson of Noah and cursed by God for his sin of not covering his shame. The subsequent generations of the Canaanites fell into evil, including the sexual promiscuity and perversion particularly associated with fertility cults and the callousness of child sacrifice. From this historical background, we can safely assume the woman was one of the many who were not the chosen people inhabiting the land at the time.
Regardless, the first impression of the encounter is unsettling. Jesus ignored her initial request, and when he did speak, he told her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The mother, not dissuaded, responded, “Lord help me.” Jesus answered, “It is not right to take food for the children and throw it to the dogs.” Still not ready to give up, the woman’s retort is eye-opening, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
Let’s use the Ignatian method to imagine the scene and see what we can learn. From where does Jesus come to this meeting with the desperate mother? Matthew tells us that Jesus had been teaching, preaching, and traveling around. He had been in his hometown, only to be frustrated with the little faith of those closest to him, those he grew up with. He felt the pain of loss as he heard of the death of John the Baptist, fed the multitude, walked on water, and rescued the disciples from the stormy seas. He had been in heated battles with the Pharisees. It is fair to assume Jesus was worn out and tired as he withdrew to that district in Tyre and Sidon.
The mother’s persistence, first turned away by Jesus, can only be observed as this woman’s deep concern for her daughter. No stone would be left unturned if there was a possibility that her daughter could be cured. Could she be a pushy woman who thought she was entitled to a cure even though she was probably a pagan? Had she run out of all options and was pulling at straws as a last-ditch effort to rid her daughter of her demonic malady? Using the Ignatian method, all could be possible at first blush. The fly in the ointment, however, is that she was rebuked and ignored at first, but she continued to plead by admitting she was not one of God’s people, an inference made by Jesus when he used the child-dog analogy.
When she told Jesus that even the dogs get scraps, she knew who she was and still had faith that the one to whom she spoke could cure her daughter. From where I stand, I can’t help but notice how much love this woman has for her daughter. Admittedly, people who do not believe in God love their kin, but something stems from this love, an opening to something outside of myself and my beloved. It has to include, at the very least, a third. Steaming in my mind now is what I have been taught about the Trinity and how there must be three persons for perfect love. Intuitively, the mother must have known this, which gave impetus for her continued plea.
Next, my mind shifts to the times my persistence was nil. I prayed for something, and it didn’t happen, so I stopped and, as a result, took a notch out of my faith, letting in thoughts in my mind that God didn’t wish to hear me or even if there was a God. Perhaps my past transgressions are nothing more than the punishment I deserve for being ignored by God. All of which crosses my mind.
Then, of course, is the question of being a second-class citizen, not one of the chosen people who attend church regularly or even pray daily. How can a person like this expect God will help and answer their plea for healing?
Now comes the pivotal moment (in every person’s life) when all of the reasons why God does not hear our cries are pushed aside, and we echo the words, “Even the dogs get to eat the table scraps.” At this point, we have touched on a more profound faith informing us there is nothing in my power to save myself or my loved one in the present or for all eternity. I am vulnerable and open, trusting God’s grace fills the void, a perfect definition of faith.
I can’t leave the scene yet because there is one more thing to observe. Jesus ends his encounter with the Canaanite woman with these words, “’ O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.” Where have I heard the term ‘woman’ before? Of course, on several occasions, Jesus uses the word when referring to his mother. At the wedding of Cana, he calls her woman and also at the foot of the cross.
When the word woman was used in both situations, the Blessed Mother was described as more than just his physical mother. The term in this context is intended to be universal for all humanity and not directed toward one person. Could this be the same use of the word in our story? Indeed, the pagan woman and mother stand for all humanity laden with sin, unlike the Blessed Mother. She represents all people who have a choice: Will I have faith in God no matter what baggage I have, or will I not believe? There is no in-between. The mother of the afflicted daughter made her choice, and Jesus saved her.
The joyous conclusion of the Gospel this week is that regardless of who and what you are, God will listen and answer your prayer for salvation. But first, you must choose to be a person of faith, and a pagan woman surprisingly modeled what that may look like.