20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Lucinda M. Vardey
On the last of our St. Basil’s Magala-sponsored Rome seminars on feminine theology,
the papal theologian, Fr. Wojciech Giertych mentioned in his homily at the opening
Mass, that the women in the gospels are not called by Jesus, they come on their own,
moved by their internal faith. The Canaanite woman is no exception. Her encounter
with Jesus is not just incidental, not just a story of her child being healed, but one that
contains the unfolding of many movements.
There is the obvious movement of the emotions of a mother petitioning for her
daughter’s healing. But alongside, or more appropriately undergirding the brief
exchange between Jesus and herself, are movements of conversion precipitated by the
power of rhetoric.
The first of these conversions is a collective one. Prior to this incident in Matthew’s
Gospel, Jesus is being asked by some Pharisees and Scribes why his disciples break
the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before eating. Jesus, who is
usually wont to answering a question with another question, asks them why they break
the commandments of God (especially that of honouring father and mother) for the sake
of their own traditions which he emphasizes are hypocritical as they have nothing to do
with God. The disciples then tell Jesus that what he said had offended the pharisees to
which Jesus responds with a teaching about defilement. That it is not what goes into the
mouth that defiles but what comes out of it. This teaching establishes Jesus’ principles
of life, not to solely uphold to human tradition in the name of God, especially if it permits
us to act without heart.
The incident with the Canaanite woman that immediately follows steers the discourse
further. Here is a woman who is affiliated with a people who worship false idols and are
perceived as sinners to Israel – those who have, over centuries, frequently tempted,
commanded and persecuted the Jewish people away from their God to the practice of
pantheistic beliefs. It is clear then that Jesus wants no discourse with a Canaanite: he’s
on his way to another region and he ignores her.
But her persistence is maternal: her daughter is sick and possessed, this is more
important to her than any acceptable decorum. She “shouts” to pay attention, closing
the gap, the distance between them. Because, like the story of the wicked judge and
the nagging widow, persuasion by being annoying, eventually gets God’s attention and
receives God’s intervention.
Emily VanBerkum and John Dalla Costa, in their joint presentation in Rome, spoke of
audacity as a quality that women demonstrate to affect conversion, to right injustices, to
embrace equality. There is little doubt that the Canaanite woman had audacity plus –
from getting Jesus’ attention, for calling for his mercy, and, more so, for not allowing
Jesus the final word. Quick as a whip, she met him in his metaphor, stepped into his
narrative and refused what could be perceived as his defilement of her by responding
with wit and alacrity.
Perhaps Jesus was as much surprised by her response as he was another non-Jewish
encounter with the Roman centurion requesting healing for his servant, because he
responds similarly to the Canaanite woman by acknowledging her great faith, which is
what it takes for the healing to occur. But something grander seems to have happened:
the borders of separation had fallen away, the cultural divide, the tribal segregation.
At that moment we witness Jesus’ humility to be guided by a woman. As with his
mother at Cana, he had not intended for his healing mission to begin as it did. My time
has not yet come, but Mary recognized it had, and he responded.
This time Jesus changed his course of ministry from not only to the lost sheep of the
house of Israel. This one responsive act to the pleas of the Canaanite woman, brought
about a conversion in him. The Messiah was not just sent for Israel but the whole
The woman was converted by acknowledging the divinity of a Jewish master and by
recognizing Jesus’ kingship in the legacy of David. And Jesus’ openness to be
changed, to break the boundaries of his own making, made possible a salvation
available to all.