Ars Praedicandi: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

This current digital turn in worship
with live streaming liturgies,
online homilies,
and podcast opportunities for spiritual communion
has been an important development for Roman Catholic
and other worship congregations.
While some consider these a stop-gap enterprise,
many understand that these digital outlets
will probably become a permanent part
of a congregation’s liturgical life.

There are obvious downsides to this digital turn
and the limited capacity of worshippers
to interact with each other,
or experience the ambiance of a beloved worship space,
or get the full spectrum effect of the music.

Yet there are some advantages here,
as worshippers can livestream the Mass
whenever convenient,
adding new complexity to the age-old question:
“When does the 10:00 a.m. Mass begin?”

The old answer was “it depends upon the presider.”
The new one is “depends upon when you log in!”

An unexpected wrinkle in digital worship is the opportunity
for worships not only to put Mass on pause
for a whole variety of reasons,
but also to mute particular elements,
including the homily,
if and when it suits them.

A worshipper from afar recently confessed
that during live-stream worship she muted one homilist
and instead read a commentary on the scriptures.
She reported that this helped keep her blood pressure down.

If some at home have already muted me,
then this point is lost on you.
But for the others near and far,
I make this point because if ever there was a Sunday
when I might mute some section of worship,
it would not be the homily
and certainly not the music.
But instead that very tough, even offensive gospel.

The other readings have their own revelatory bite to them:
In the first reading from Isaiah
we hear of the struggle within the Jewish community
returning from Exile
to a country increasingly populated with non-Jews.

So we hear the beginning of a new kind of theologizing
that embraces the shocking revelation that all people,
and not just the Jews,
are invited into the covenant they previously thought
was an exclusive commitment between themselves
and the Holy One. [1]

The thorny issue of inclusivity also arises in the second reading
in which Paul, a Jew,
reveals himself as the apostle to the Gentiles,
the apostle to the unclean,
to the outcasts,
to the spiritually lost.
Embarrassingly enough,
this student of the great Jewish teacher Gamaliel,
so zealous in honoring God and keeping the law,
the firebrand preacher and rising star,
has been rejected by his own people.

In an attempt to embarrass his co-religionists
he turns his energy to non-Jews,
hoping that this will stir sufficient jealously
and that at least some of them
will eventually embrace the gospel.

But the real mute button should be reserved for the Gospel.
Those 8 verses from Matthew
beginning with a Canaanite woman
crying out to Jesus to heal her daughter.
By the end of the story, her daughter has been healed,
but between the crying and the healing,
Jesus says some profoundly troubling things.

One blogger characterizes the Jesus of Matthew 15 as:
arrogant, racist, and just plain mean.
Language that sounds even more inflammatory
given this post-George Floyd,
post-Me Too moment in history.

She continues:
We may believe that Jesus was “truly human,”
but we don’t want him to be too human. [2]

So over the years, scholars have tried to clean up this story,
for example, suggesting that Jesus was testing this woman
to see if she had enough faith.
When she passed the test, Jesus commends her great faith
and the daughter is healed.

Ironically, the woman here makes no confession of faith.
She is persistent,
recognizing Jesus as a healer or magician,
but shows no evidence of believing that
he was the son of God. [3]

Here’s another option to soften Jesus’ words:
the Greek word kunarios ― translated as “dogs”
really means “little dogs” or “puppies.”
So when Jesus tells the woman,
“It is not fair to take the children’s bread
and throw it to the dogs,” he really means puppies.
But does that really help?

Or does another suggestion help soften the passage that,
because this woman submits to Jesus and kneels, Jesus heals her daughter.

As one commentator noted
A kneeling woman doesn’t have very far to fall.

Matthew surprising doesn’t clean up this story
and dares to depict a very human Jesus
encountering a don’t-mess-with-me mother.

She is a Canaanite, not one of Jesus’ people
on her home turf, and Jesus is outside
both his hood and his comfort zone.

Matthew’s choice of words seems strange and pointed:
By Jesus’ time, such people were no longer called Canaanites.
Matthew chooses this “ancient name” on purpose,
signaling that she is not only the “other,”
but she is identified with an ancient enemy.

Yet she seems to know who Jesus is.
She begs him to heal her daughter tormented by a demon.
She’s desperate and comes out shouting.
Some scholars claim that the only women
who spoke to men in public were prostitutes:
a common ploy of treating people who are different
as morally suspect.

The disciples don’t want to think about such questions.
They want nothing to do with her
“Send her away!” they tell Jesus.
But Jesus refused.

So a resolute (or stubborn?) Christ
meets a resolute and desperate Mother.

She may not be Jewish but she calls out to Jesus
in language borrowed from Jewish prayer:
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
But Jesus isn’t swayed by the familiar language.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” he tells her.

She won’t give up.
“Lord, help me,” she begs.
This is where Jesus goes to the dogs:
“It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs.”

But the feisty woman fighting for her daughter’s life
picks up his words and throws them right back at him,
for even the dogs eat the crumbs from their masters’ table.

Makes you wonder:
was she there in Matthew 14 for the feeding of the multitude?
Or did she at least hear about it?
12 baskets of fragments left over,
5000 men … not counting women and children?
So, maybe, she reasons,
for a change let’s count the women and children.

So Jesus relents
“Woman, great is your faith!”
Even though she hasn’t made any profession of faith,
no sign she’s been born again,
or even considered being a follower, much less a disciple.

She simply spoke the truth:
the children have been fed.
There are baskets of food leftover.
Surely there’s enough for my daughter.

So Jesus relents …
and her daughter is healed.

By and large, the Gospels sidestep
what we might call Jesus’ psychological development,
aside from one telling verse in Luke 2,
that narrates how he went back to Nazareth with his parents
where he grew in wisdom and stature.

The Gospels do depict his humanity and emotional life:
we see him grow tired of crowds,
fall asleep from exhaustion,
grow hungry and thirsty,
his emotions boiling over in anger at Pharisees,
at money changers, and even at his own disciples.

He grieves hard over the death of Lazarus at Bethany
and grieves his own impending death in Gethsemane.

There is one gospel passage, however, that stands out
among these human moments;
an occasion when we see him learn something new
and become someone different.

As recorded both by Mark as well as today’s gospel from Matthew,
Jesus is brought up short by an unexpected truth.
Not only does he change his mind,
but does so in a breathtaking 180-degree turn.
Most astonishing of all
it is a pagan woman who triggers the reversal.

One can almost imagine Jesus walking away from this encounter
saying to himself, with some astonishment,
“Canaanite lives matter; Canaanite lives matter,”
maybe even working that line into his next public teaching.
Of course he would get a lot of pushback,
he usually did.

And Jesus would counter all of the alpha males in the crowd,
“Yes Pharisees’ lives matter
and Sadducees’ lives matter
and those from the house of David and the Levitical line,
their lives matter too.”

“But,” I imagine Jesus would clarify
“you are all guys in a position of power.
You have all sorts of ways to assert
that your lives matter.

It is such as these: Canaanite mothers,
Samaritan divorcees,
the leprous and the disfigured,
the widows and other social outcasts,
even the children
to whom the kingdom I am proclaiming also belongs …
Their lives matter as well
But who stands up for them?
Who exerts their power and capital to remind society
that their lives matter just as much as yours?”

That struggle, unfortunately, continues yet today
and when one of those marginalized and belittled does stand up
to announce that their life and that their community matters,
the baptized are confronted
in the face of our stubbornness, our prejudice
to do what Jesus did … to change.

In that spirit the prophetess offers this “stubborn blessing”:

Don’t tell me no.
I have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill
from your hands
like water, like wine,
seen you with circles
and circles of crowds
pressed around you
and not one soul
turned away.

Don’t start with me.

I am saying
you can close the door
but I will keep knocking.
You can go silent
but I will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle
but I will trace a bigger one
around you,
around the life of my child

who will tell you
no one surpasses a mother
for stubbornness.

I am saying
I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
Unclench your hand,
your heart.
Let the scraps fall
like manna,
like mercy
for the life
of my child,
the life of
the world.

Don’t you tell me no. [4]

So like the holy one, we dare to
unclench our hands,
unclench our hearts
and let mercy flow … through Christ our Lord.

[1] See Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 223-6.





    1. This is the most incredible homily.
      I was dumbfounded by the end.
      Since I was a youth I have understood, just by reading the Gospels, that Jesus must have grown in wisdom. Life does that to you. “All lives matter” is a convenient copout that allows one to sidestep the glaring injustices standing in front of us.
      I’m sharing this with everyone I know.

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