Jesus called her a dog?!

Matthew 15:21-28 (20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A)

“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

I know what you’re thinking ... did Jesus just call that poor woman a dog?! Yes, I’m afraid He did. In fact, Jesus’ actions throughout the Gospel seem strange and out of character. Here we meet a woman who approaches Jesus, asking Him to heal her daughter who is being tormented by a demon. For the people at Jesus’ time, being tormented by a demon could mean many things, including suffering from some physical, psychological or physical ailment. Regardless, this woman’s daughter was suffering and she is desperate for help. At first, Jesus ignores the woman. When she continues to beg His help, Jesus replies that He was sent to help only the lost sheep of the house of Israel, of which this Canaanite woman is not a member. Finally, after she continues to beseech Him, Jesus replies with a phrase which has the impact of a sucker-punch to the nose: “It is not right to take the food of the children and feed it to the dogs”. Ouch! Why is Jesus acting like this? What is going on here?

First, lets be clear about what is not going on in this Gospel:
1. A prejudiced Jesus learns a lesson about cultural acceptance
Some Jews at Jesus’ time viewed other nations and cultures harshly. They, the people of Israel, were God’s children. They would refer to non-Jews, or Gentiles, as dogs. Some suggest that as a 1st century Jew, Jesus shared this racial prejudice. They argue that His encounter with the Canaanite woman helped Him drop this view and become more accepting. Jesus does use a racially charged expression, but He gives no indication He agrees with it. His actions show the opposite. Jesus freely chooses to visit a gentile land, something He would hardly have done had He not liked the people there. He went there to reach out to the people in this land. As we will see, Jesus has a very good reason for playing on the underlying racial tensions of the encounter.

2. Jesus learns the full nature of His mission from the Canaanite woman
Others argue that Jesus initially thought He was only the Savior of the people of Israel. His encounter with the Canaanite woman supposedly led Jesus to realize that His mission was to be the Saviour of all. Again, this view is countered by what we find in the Gospels. We need to remember that Jesus was a Jew through and through. Sometimes our art, in which Jesus is depicted as a pale-skinned, blond haired Californian surfer, can make us forget this. Jesus knew that His mission was to be the Savior of all. At the same time, He knew that His mission was first to the people of Israel. Jesus comes as the King of the Jews to start a kingdom that will eventually cover the world. Israel was the chosen vehicle through which God planned to save the world.

So what is happening here in this Gospel??

In His interaction with the Canaanite woman, Jesus is intentionally putting barriers in her way so that in stepping over them, she will come to a deeper faith. One of the most popular movies around when I was growing up was The Karate Kid (the original, better one, not the new one with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan...). This movie tells the story of Daniel, who has just entered Senior High in a new city. He soon gets bullied and beaten up and wants to learn Karate as a way to defend himself. Upon learning that his maintenance man in his apartment, Mr. Miyagi, has a background in Karate, Daniel begs him to teach him. Mr. Miyagi responds by putting many obstacles in Daniel’s way. When he arrives for lessons, Mr. Miyagi ignores him and gives him menial tasks to do: painting, sanding the deck and waxing cars. Though angry at first, Daniel perseveres and eventually finds that what he saw as roadblocks were actually part of his training. More than teaching him basic physical skills, in persevering against these challenges, Daniel developed as a person. He grew in his desire to learn, in courage and in self-confidence. The barriers put up by Mr. Miyagi drew these qualities out of Daniel. Jesus does the same thing with the Canaanite women. When she first comes to Jesus, she did have faith in Him. But how deep was her faith in Christ? Did she see Him simple as just another miracle worker? Jesus ignores her, and puts her off with some charged comments to test the depth of her faith. In the end, the strategy works. She replies with with a charming statement expressing her belief that although Jesus is the Savior of the Jews, she want Him to be her Savior as well: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus praises this great faith she has discovered within herself.

In order to help us grow, Jesus often puts roadblock in our way. Lets look at three examples.
  1. Roadblocks in life. Sometimes when we are living our life in a way that leads us away from God, He puts barriers in our way. Things such as difficulties at work and personal suffering often serve to make us remember how much we need God in our lives and turn back to Him.
  2. Obstacles in prayer. Often we don’t get what we ask for in prayer or else prayer can feel dry and lifeless. We can be tempted to give up. If we persevere against these obstacles and keep praying, we can grow spiritually. We can learn to love God for being God rather than the good feelings we get from Him. Also, some of the things we ask for in prayer aren't really what is best for us. In this case, God doesn't give us what we ask for in prayer because He is helping to expand our heart, making it capable of receiving an even greater gift.
  3. Challenges in relationships. Whether it is in our family, work or school, we all have to deal with “difficult people”. They can test our patience and lead us to become frustrated. Learning to relate to such people, however, is a great opportunity to grow in the virtues of patience and understanding.

At times we all feel like the Canaanite woman. We can become confused and frustrated when Jesus does not remove certain roadblocks in our life. Today, identify one such barrier in your life. Perhaps it is a struggle in prayer, at work or in a relationship. Take a moment to ask God for the grace to persevere like the Canaanite woman, trusting that Jesus will use this obstacle as a means to strengthen and deepen your faith.

A question that needs answering

Matthew 14-23 (19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour? I was in university the first time an evangelical Christian friend of mine asked me this question. At the time I was struggling with my faith and could not honestly answer yes. I remember feeling uncomfortable and uneasy. I became defensive and avoided answering the question. I dismissed the question in my mind, thinking it sounded too “Protestant”. My opinion has changed. I now think that it is a good and valid question for Catholics to ask of other Catholics and for each of us to personally consider our answer.

The gospel of today teaches us that in order to be Catholic we need to consciously and continually accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Saviour. Let’s review the events quickly. It is dark and Peter is in a boat with the other disciples. He sees someone walking on the water. At first he thinks it is a ghost, but later he discovers it is Jesus. Jesus then calls Peter out of the boat to walk on the water with Him. Peter steps out of the boat, walks a bit, loses sight of Jesus and begins sinking. Peter then cries out to Jesus for help. Jesus reaches down and saves Him. Now try to imagine what is going through Peter’s head during all of this. Peter must have had incredible trust and faith and Jesus to leave the boat. He put his entire life into Jesus’ hands, believing that Jesus would care for Him. In other words, in getting out of the boat, Peter accepts Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. Though he makes progress, Peter loses sight of Jesus and begins to sink. Again he cries out to Jesus as His saviour. Each one of us are called to imitate Peter. The boat in the the gospel is a symbol for the Church, a boat we are all in. Jesus invites each of us to follow Him on the water. We each need to personally have the trust, courage and faith to place our lives into His hands. If we don’t accept Him as our Lord and Saviour we will never leave the boat. As we follow Christ, we often lose sight of Jesus and begin  Jesus as our personal Lord and Saviour not just once but time and time again.

Unfortunately, as Catholics we are not often challenged to make this decision. Recently you have probably been following the terrible news coming out of Iraq. There, certain Muslim fundamentalists are brutally killing those not of their specific religion, including many Christians and even other Muslims. Christians have been rounded up and given the choice to convert or be killed. Many have been terribly murdered rather than renounce their faith. This incredible commitment to Christ as their Lord and Saviour is remarkable. This situation is in stark contrast to that in the West where we encounter no persecution and yet people are leaving the Church in large numbers. You know the bad news yourselves, probably from first hand experience among your own family and friend. In the United States, and I assume number are similar in Canada, “former Catholics” are the second largest religious group. Among those who are still Catholic, perhaps only 25% attend Mass with any regularity. Why are people drifting away from the practice of their faith like this? Though there are many factors and keeping in mind that everyone has a different story, I think that a main reason is that Catholics are not challenged to personally choose to follow Christ. We can go through years of Catholic school and catechism lessons and never be challenged to make a personal decision to commit our lives fully to Jesus. Not surprisingly, when we become an adult we can easily drift away from the practice of our faith because we never made it our own.

This is something we can change. We need to take steps to ensure that we are continually renewing our decision to accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour and encourage others to do the same. In our own life we can become more aware of our continual need to put commit ourselves to Jesus. Have you accepted Him as your Lord and Saviour? Is this reflected in the way you live? When it comes to encouraging others to deepen their commitment to Christ, I think we should take a cue from the world of advertising. In order to get people to buy their products, advertisers like to appeal to people’s desires. The good news for us is that the deepest desire of every human heart is for a relationship with Jesus. I think it is about time we did some advertizing of our own! Why not advertise more to our friends and family members the many great programs offered by our parish that could allow them to grow closer to Christ? We can do this simply by letting them know what is available and kindly inviting them! This is a particularly timely thing to do as programs will start soon in September. Maybe you know someone who is interested in becoming a Catholic, or was baptized a Catholic but never received Confirmation and is now an adult. Why not invite them to participate in RCIA? Perhaps you know parents who have children in elementary school that are not receiving Catholic education. Why not tell them about the PREP program? Maybe you know or even have teens in High School who do not yet participate in the parish youth ministry program. Invite them! Twists their arms if you need to! It is a wonderful group and they will surely enjoy it. We should give people a chance to say no for themselves and not say no for them by never inviting them.

Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour? Now I would answer, yes, I have accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior and it is something I need to do time and time again. I couldn’t always say this. The fact that I can is on account of other Catholics who invited me to become more involved in the Church and in this way deepen my personal commitment to Jesus. I am happy they did! Let us do the same for others. As September approaches, let us encourage friends and family members to become involved in parish groups that might be appropriate for them. In this way they can draw closer to Jesus, He who is our Lord, Saviour and the deepest desire of our heart.

No to "shotty not"

Matthew 14:13-21 (18th Sunday of Ordinary time, year a)

Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
We are all probably familiar with the expressions “pass the buck” and “cop out”.  If you are younger, you will know what it means when someone calls out “shotty not!”  Situations regularly arise when we are aware that there is something we should do to help those who are in need. For example, we might hear of an opportunity to donate money or food to help the poor. Or we may know a friend or co-worker who is passing through a hard time and needs someone to talk to. Maybe we realize there are ways we can better support our parish. When we encounter these situations we sometimes choose not to help, knowing that we are able to.  We can pass the buck to our neighbors, assuming someone else will take care of the situation. We can even pass the buck to God thinking something like “let Him take care of it, He’s God afterall!” Today’s Gospel makes it clear that if we are serious about following Christ, passing the buck in this way is not really an option.

From the miracle in which Jesus feeds the multitude we learn a fundamental lesson: Jesus helps the needy through the mediation of his followers. Jesus is aware of the needs of the people around Him and desires to help. Pay close attention to how Jesus works this miracle. He does not pull out bread and fish from His own bag, multiply it and then personally hand this out to the crowd. Jesus does say to the people - as in an episode of Oprah - “everyone look under your seats ... surprise, there is a meal there!” This miracle does not happen without the mediation of the disciples. The disciples are those who bring the needs of the people to Jesus’ attention. The disciples provide the five loaves and two fish which Jesus multiples. Finally, the disciples distribute the food to the hungry crowd. Jesus follows this same pattern today. Jesus has compassion on those in need - whether it is the materially poor or the spiritually poor - and helps these people through the mediation of those who follow Him. St. Theresa of Avila recognized this in her famous reflection:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion
is to look out to the earth,
yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good
and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.

It is for our own good that Jesus allows us to be mediators in His work of compassion. We may wonder why Jesus does not simply help the needy directly.  Why doesn't Jesus just snap His fingers and give food to all the hungry in the world and consolation to the sorrowing? Why must we be His hands? The truth is that Jesus does not need us to be His mediators, rather, we need to become His mediators so that we can grow as His disciples. The other day I was watching my sister and her young son interact as he was trying to put on his shoes. My nephew was struggling and soon became frustrated. He wanted his mom to simply put on the shoes for him. My sister wanted to make him do it on his own. It’s not that she didn't care that he was having trouble. Rather, she knows that if she always put on his shoes for him he would never learn to do it on his own. Parents often interact with their children in this way so that they can grow and develop. When it comes to helping the needy, Jesus does a similar thing with us. By letting the disciples play a role in the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus gives them an opportunity to become more like Him by being generous, serving others and more attentive to the needs of others. We are all meant to become more like Jesus. If Jesus simply provided helped the needy directly, without our cooperation, then our growth as Christians would be forever stunted.

It is Imperative that we put our time, talents and treasure at the service of those in need, trusting that God will make our efforts fruitful. Sometimes we hold back from helping those in need because we feel we cannot make a difference. We feel like we wouldn't know what to say to console someone who is sorrowing. Maybe we think we lack the talents or time to get more involved in the parish. Perhaps we feel that the small amount of money that we could donate to some cause is too insignificant to matter. In the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, what the disciples give is so little: 2 fish and 5 loaves. What is this among thousands? Jesus, however, multiplies these gifts and feeds the crowd. If the disciples had not given anything, however, there would be nothing to multiply! With us too, when we give give of our time, talents and treasure to help those in need, we can be sure that Jesus will make our contributions fruitful. A recent example that comes to mind is the life of Mother Teresa. Physically she was so small. She did not posses any advanced degrees or training. She herself was aware of her own weakness. When she was convinced that God was asking her to begin serving the poorest of the poor, she often prayed that God would choose someone who was strong, more talented and better qualified. In the end, Mother Teresa was generous in helping those in need and God made her work extremely fruitful. The world would be a very different place for a great many people if Mother Teresa had not used used her gifts, trusting that God would make her efforts fruitful. Many thousands would have remained in their suffering. She herself would never have become such a remarkable saint.

Passing the buck, copping out or calling “shotty not” are not options if we are serious about following Jesus. Doing this has two negative results: 1) the suffering of the needy will not be alleviated and 2) we will not grow to become more like Jesus. When we are tempted not to help those in need, we would do well to remember a favorite saying of Mother Teresa: “be the one”. When you hear of a way you can help out in your parish think let me be the one. When you get a chance to listen to someone who needs comforting, be the one. When there is an opportunity to help out someone in your family or a coworker with some task be the one. If we desire to grow to become more like Jesus, each of us must want to be the one.