None of us enjoys walking into a situation and being made to feel unwelcome. Perhaps at a social event we join a group of people deep in conversation, only to have all talking stop. Or we present a new idea to the staff with whom we work and it is immediately cut down and we are ignored. Or a friend invites us along to dinner with mutual friends, and when we arrive there is obviously no place setting for us at the table and no move on the part of the hostess to set one. These situations hurt. If we can, we take leave of the situation as soon as possible. If we cannot remove ourselves from a difficult situation, we try to become as inconspicuous as possible. A corner becomes our friend!
A first glance at this Sunday’s gospel might lead us to think that the Canaanite woman is a very unwelcome person! The disciples want Jesus to send her away. Jesus says some pretty harsh things. The Canaanite woman (a foreigner) approaches Jesus with a heartfelt request to heal her daughter. Jesus’ reply seems anything but welcoming! But rather than give up and remove herself from a seemingly unpleasant situation, she is determined to receive healing for her daughter. She does anything but give up! Her heart is steadfastly turned toward reaching one goal: healing for her daughter. She is willing to accept any rebuke, rebuttal, rebuff in order to get what she desires for one she loves. Love conquers any unwelcome. [Living Liturgy, 2014]
The Canaanite woman demonstrates the kind of faith needed to be healed by Jesus and to receive God’s gift of salvation, the kind of faith that brings us into divine embrace. Her faith was visible in three habits of the heart: awareness that she needed Jesus’ healing intervention, persistence against all odds, and concern not only for herself but for her daughter. Her great faith moved Jesus to have “pity on” her. Anyone who approaches God with this kind of great faith will be given healing and salvation. We too must develop and grow in the habits of the heart that make visible the great faith necessary for our healing and salvation.
Here is the twist of this gospel: a seemingly unwelcome situation gives way to one in which everyone is welcome. Jesus initially declares that his mission is only to “the house of Israel,” and, consequently, harshly rebuffs the Canaanite woman. Then a change occurs. The encounter between Jesus and the woman reveals the unrestricted welcome of Jesus, the power of great faith, and the universality of salvation for those who believe.
The Canaanite woman’s cry to Jesus was that he “[h]ave pity on me” (not on her daughter, although that is surely implied in the request). Her love for her daughter and her great desire that she be healed could not be separated from herself—she and her daughter were one in the need for healing and life. Her daughter was welcomed into her heart in love, and this was the source of her great faith and persistence. This gives us an insight into our inclusivity and ministry: we must be so “at one” with others that their plight is our own plight. Ministry is more than doing for another; it implies an empathy with another that discloses the unity we share as members of the Body of Christ. One dimension of living the Gospel is that we work to increase our unity with one another, which in turn draws us to reach out to others in mercy and compassion, welcome and inclusivity.