A House For All Peoples: Jesus, the Canaanite Woman, and Charlottesville
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
August 28, 2017

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A) on August 20, 2017 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 67; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; and Matthew 15:21-28.

Sometimes God makes it pretty clear what we’re supposed to preach about. This past week, our nation – and much of the world – has been consumed by a discussion about racism. And today, all of our readings deal with the issue of race. There are no coincidences!

In our first reading, God announces that his justice is about to break through, and when it does, all foreigners will be welcome to worship on the LORD’s mountain. Paul concludes that Jews who reject the gospel are still part of God’s plan. Our gospel passage, however, is one of the most challenging passages in Matthew. Jesus and his disciples are on their way to two towns outside of Israel, and they meet a non-Jewish woman who asks for help. It may sound as if Jesus is disinterested in her. He eventually says something that equates her with a dog, and “dog” is still a disparaging term that’s used in many parts of the world to refer to a foreigner. Some interpreters argue that the woman’s witty response causes Jesus to change his opinion.

I think there’s a better way to interpret this story in the context of what’s happened in the previous two chapters. Let’s also remember that this is a 3-way conversation among the Canaanite woman, the disciples, and Jesus. Let us not jump to conclusions about who is responding to whom! There are valid ways to interpret this passage so that it is open and inclusive in the same Spirit as our other readings today. God is inclusive on whom he chooses to shower with mercy. Let us celebrate that!

Some people say that the Canaanite woman had to convince Jesus to expand God’s mercy. Really? Why would this be the one instance of Jesus, the Son of the Living God, making a mistake until someone else corrects him?

We’re in chapter 15 of the Gospel of Matthew, so let’s look to chapters 13 and 14 for some help in interpreting this passage. In chapter 13, Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven was like seed sown indiscriminately all over the land, but some seed fell on good soil and produced 30-, 60-, or 100-fold. Then, in chapter 14, when the disciples wanted to dismiss a huge crowd 20,000 people, Jesus said, “feed them yourselves.” The disciples apparently didn’t remember Jesus’ teaching about the good soil, so he showed them that it was possible to feed the crowd with five loaves and two fish.

In chapter 13, Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven was like a mustard seed that grew into a mighty tree. Then, in chapter 14, Peter took several steps on the pitching surface of the stormy sea, and when he began to sink, he sank at a rate much slower than what we would expect from the force of gravity.  

Today’s passage is another example of how we are to bring forth the kingdom of heaven. In chapter 13, Jesus said that the kingdom was like farmhands who should not try to separate the weeds from the wheat until the harvest. And yet, the disciples – perhaps they didn’t want to be bothered with strangers while on a beach vacation? – decided right then and there that the Canaanite woman was a weed. Jesus said nothing; the disciples begged Jesus to send her away because she was bothering them.  

When Jesus says that he came to save the lost sheep of Israel and that it’s not right to take food from children, I think he’s testing the disciples. Jesus had recently taught them about the expansiveness of God’s mercy. The disciples don’t get it, but the Canaanite woman does. Jesus has been spoon-feeding the disciples, but they fail to absorb even a morsel. Looking at the uncomprehending disciples, the woman points out that her plea, her request, takes nothing from the disciples – she is taking the food that they have chosen not to eat. And Jesus, who called Peter “you of little faith,” declares, “O woman, great is your faith!”

The events of Charlottesville last weekend were horrific, and the debate that has enveloped our country in the past week has been truly remarkable. To be clear: this debate is not about statues. It is not about the political left or the political right. This is about extremism. The bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States have been consistent and forceful in their statements this week. White supremacy, neo-Nazism, and anti-Semitism have no place in our society. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. We are obligated to speak out publicly and forcefully against people who call for the extermination of the third of our neighbors who are non-white or non-Christian. In the eyes of God, all people have equal rights and equal dignity. The Paulist Fathers issued a statement on Wednesday about the events in Charlottesville and about the debate since then

And now to a different topic. Many of us in the United States Catholic Church today, even if we come to Mass regularly at a parish we love, often feel like the Canaanite woman – on the outside, not able to fit in. It’s natural to think that everyone else has their act together, and that we’re the only one struggling. That is not the case.  

Even secular advice columnists will tell you: when you feel out of sorts, join a group at Church. You will grow in your faith, you will grow in your relationship with God, you will make new friends, and you will help build up the kingdom of God. 

Today is our annual Ministry Fair. After Mass, please come over to Hecker Hall for 15-20 minutes, grab some food, learn about some of the many ministries at St. Austin’s, and introduce yourself to someone new. As our Scriptures make clear today, there is room at God’s table for everyone!