by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
When was the last time you used a map to get from Point A to Point B? I don’t mean an app on your phone that talks to you in a tone that always sounds vaguely scolding. I mean a map that’s printed on paper, the kind that you have to unfold, the kind I could never manage to fold back together again. It has been a long time since I have unfolded a map, but I’m on good terms with the voice that talks to me from my phone app, because it doesn’t complain when I grouse about where it tells me to go.
It takes more than a map or an app to figure out this Sunday’s Gospel reading, which tells us that Jesus “withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” These were cities on the Mediterranean coast, quite a distance from Gennesaret (on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee), where Jesus and the disciples landed the boat after the eventful crossing about which we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel. It’s a long enough walk to make us wonder what Jesus was up to!
The port cities of Tyre and Sidon (in present-day Lebanon) had a longstanding reputation for prosperity that came from international trade. It was King Hiram of Tyre who supplied King Solomon with the timber and gold he needed for his ambitious building projects. Yet Sidon was the hometown of Jezebel, the notorious Ba’al-worshipping spouse of King Ahab and a bitter enemy of the prophet Elijah. Both cities were the objects of searing critiques from the prophets because of their wealth and the arrogance that accompanied it. What could have brought Jesus to that region? We read a clue a few chapters earlier, with his withering rebuke of two Galilean towns: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes!” (Matthew 11:21)
While in Gennesaret, Jesus debated with envoys of the Pharisees and scribes who came from Jerusalem to seek him out, and perhaps that encounter led him to withdraw to the region of Tyre and Sidon. There he might be able to ascertain for himself their willingness to welcome him and his Gospel. It isn’t long before such an opportunity presents itself, when a woman of that region implores him, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus’ reputation must have preceded him, so she addresses him in a way that honors his royal lineage. Jesus doesn’t answer her, and his disciples are annoyed that she keeps calling after them, so they ask Jesus to send her away. What comes next is puzzling, as Jesus telling the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” If only Peter (with his penchant for speaking his mind) had thought to reply with something like, “Then what are we doing here in the region of Tyre and Sidon, Lord? This was your idea!”
If that’s what Peter was thinking, he didn’t have time to pronounce a word of it, because the woman “came and did Jesus homage, saying, ‘Lord, help me’.” The woman’s homage — bowing down, face to the ground — should have been enough to convince Jesus to save her daughter, but Jesus protests, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” It’s hard to imagine another saying of Jesus that makes commentators squirm more uncomfortably than this one! Undeterred, the woman insists, using Jesus’ own words to make her case: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” At that, Jesus gives in, acknowledging “O woman, great is your faith,” and healing her daughter.
What does this unflappable Canaanite woman teach us by her persistence? Her faith wasn’t merely a matter of believing that something is true. Real faith — the kind that can move mountains and that can move the heart of Jesus — is a matter of abiding, unshakeable trust in God. She knew what Jesus could do and she wouldn’t take no for an answer! May her example inspire us!
Readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.