Today’s Gospel teaches us a basic truth: God’s love is for all people. In the encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus shows that we can’t limit God’s love, mercy and forgiveness to those who think like us, look like us and act like us. God’s love is universal. Therefore, our love – in our own limited, human way – can’t be limited only to those with whom we feel comfortable.
The Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus, pleading that He exorcise the demon from her daughter, has two strikes against her in the eyes of many of the Lord’s contemporaries. First, she is a woman, and in the patriarchal Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, women did not have the same social status as men. She was meant to be seen, to serve and would never dare approach a male stranger to seek a favor. Second, she was a Canaanite, one who practiced a foreign, polytheistic religion. She was not worthy of a devout Jew’s acknowledgement.
Yet, Jesus is not only willing to speak to her, but He is willing to listen to her plea and to heal her daughter. This is a model of true dialogue and evangelization.
In this age of the New Evangelization, how can this be a model for us? I would posit three things: First, know and believe your own faith; second, be willing to learn about the faith and culture of others; and finally, trust that God desires the salvation of all who sincerely seek Him.
Let us consider what it means to know and believe in your own faith. Jesus knows His faith as a Jew. The Messiah has come to seek and save first the lost children of Israel. After doing this, then and only then can He go to the rest of the world. He knows this is the faith of Israel, and He expresses this teaching to the Canaanite woman. There is an old expression in Latin: “Nemo dat quod non habet,” which translates into “You can’t give what you don’t have.” No one is able to pass on the faith unless we know it. And knowing the faith solely on an intellectual level is not enough. We need to believe it in the core of our souls, and having believed it, we need to live it.
Do we really know what we believe as Catholics? Have we continued our faith formation in adulthood, or have we thought it sufficient to keep our knowledge on the level of our childhood? Granted, the basic teachings don’t change, and even at the earliest ages, we can grasp the concepts of God’s existence, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery, the Church and the sacraments.
Move Beyond the Basics
In adulthood, however, we need to move beyond the basics and learn to express the truth of our faith in a manner appropriate for our age and state of life. How well do we know the sacred Scripture and sacred tradition of our faith? The Catechism of the Catholic Church can guide us in coming to an adult understanding of the faith. We cannot dialogue with others unless we know what we believe and can express it in a credible fashion.
Having come to a knowledge of the faith, do we really accept and believe those teachings? There is a remarkable consistency in the fabric of the faith – from the concept of creation to the moral teachings of the Church – it all flows from the basics we learned as children.
And having come to a knowledge and belief in the teachings of the Church, do we live it? The ultimate credibility of the faith is given in the witness of a life of heroic service, knowing that the Gospel is best preached by actions, not words.
Second, we cannot live in an environment where we know nothing about anyone except those who act like us, think like us and look like us. Jesus was willing to dialogue with someone who is different than Him. The world is a much bigger place than just you and I as individuals, bigger than our families and friends, bigger than us as a nation and even bigger than just our own faith. Knowing and living the teachings of the Church should give us the confidence to dialogue with those who don’t share our belief in Christ or the same moral teachings as we do.
Finally, we need to trust that God desires the salvation of all people. God wants all to come to the knowledge of the truth that is Christ Jesus. In his encyclical, “Dominum et Vivificantem,” St. John Paul writes: “Vatican II adds that the Church is ‘a sacrament … of the unity of all mankind.’” Obviously, it is a question of the unity which the human race – differentiated in various ways – has from God and in God. This unity has its roots in the mystery of creation and acquires a new dimension in the mystery of the redemption, which is ordered to universal salvation.
Since God “wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” (1 Tim 2:4), the redemption includes all humanity and in a certain way all of creation. In the same universal dimension of redemption the Holy Spirit is acting, by virtue of the “departure of Christ.” Therefore, the Church, rooted in the Trinitarian plan of salvation, regards herself as the “sacrament of the unity of the whole human race.” She knows that she is such through the power of the Holy Spirit, of which power she is a sign and instrument in the fulfillment of God’s salvific plan.
We need to look, like Jesus with the Canaanite woman, for those with a sincere heart. May we have the courage to act with the confidence that comes from knowing the truth that Jesus came to bring.
Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 56: 1, 6-7
Psalm 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8
Romans 11: 13-15, 29-32
Matthew 15: 21-28
Father John P. Cush, a doctoral candidate in fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, is a priest in residence at Immaculate Heart of Mary, Windsor Terrace.