Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
10 Aug 2020
Anne McGowan

Reading 1: Isaiah 56:1, 6–7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 67:2–3, 5, 6, 8
Reading 2: Romans 11:13–15, 29–32
Gospel: Matthew 15:21–28

A mother who can do nothing further to alleviate her child’s suffering will bear any humiliation for help. A God of great mercy hears and answers the prayer of a woman of great faith, and her daughter is healed. The ending is happy but the middle seems messy. This mama is making a scene, Jesus himself does not initially seize the opportunity to act like the God of Israel who welcomes faith-filled foreigners, and the disciples demand that Jesus send her away. Jesus’ eventual interaction with the woman seems so out of character that interpreters have struggled to find a “teachable moment” in this incident that lets us reconcile Jesus’ actions here with those of the Jesus we want to believe in.

One possible reading presents the Good Teacher himself as the one with something to learn. Jesus in his humanity is inevitably formed by the same social biases to which everyone steeped in his culture was susceptible. The woman’s tremendous faith prompts him to recognize God at work through the faith God lavishes generously on all people, even Canaanites! This insight even might have been a turning point in Jesus’ ministry that foreshadows the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus sends the disciples to all the nations. An alternative learning opportunity involves an omniscient Jesus planning from the outset to heal the woman’s daughter after conducting a test of her faith that he knows she can handle. The woman passes admirably, acknowledging the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” while creatively claiming a place for herself and her daughter under the children’s table. Yet another perspective presents this as a teachable moment for the disciples. Jesus and the woman effectively collaborate to perform a parable for their benefit. Jesus starts by repeating a standard cultural slur, but the woman deftly inverts its implications, perhaps even coupling her words with a playful gesture of puppy-like prostration that jolts the disciples into recognizing this woman and others like her not as dogs, but as revelations of God’s mercy toward the marginalized in their midst.

Although it is difficult for any hearer of this passage to discern what it teaches us about following Jesus’ example, Rev. Dr. Miguel De La Torre, a Southern Baptist minister and professor of social ethics and Latinx studies, remarks that people of color especially more easily identify themselves with the Canaanite mother in this incident than with Jesus. They cannot escape regular reminders that they and their children are often valued more like dogs than people. Their only recourse is persistent pleading, which too often falls on deaf ears. During this summer of dis-ease, the cries of many black and brown mothers are becoming harder to ignore.  People who have enjoyed race-based superiority and privilege are confronted with the cries of those who have had to satisfy themselves on scraps that fell from the tables of power. The suffering inflicted on children – and others – through the effects of structural racism is more difficult for those who have benefited most from prevailing power structures to not hear. Pandemic conditions and economic recession have illuminated the unjust impacts of structural racism on policing, gun violence, health care access, educational inequalities, and economic opportunities, all of which conspire against the full flourishing of people of color. Meanwhile, the cries of many other mothers continue, including refugee mothers separated from their children during border crossings, mothers advocating for the dignified treatment of children with disabilities, and mothers who have lost children to addiction.

As the psalmist and St. Paul emphasize, God has pity on us and shows mercy to us in the midst of our limitations so that God’s blessing of us might inspire all people to know and praise God. Whether we find ourselves in need of mercy because of circumstances beyond our control or because of circumstances of human making due to personal or structural sin, our faith teaches us that life is possible even out of situations that deliver us and our societies to death. Like a mother’s tenacious love for her child, the faith-filled hope God gives us that another future is possible for us and for our children leads us to keep asking for God’s mercy and start or keep doing what is in our power, with God’s help, to promote justice and wholeness for all people but especially for those whose lives need to matter more. It is this same faith that leads us at Mass from the table of God’s Word to the table of the Eucharist. As a foretaste of dining in God’s kingdom, everyone eats at the children’s table, and no one has to clamor for leftover scraps beneath it. As the theologian and philosopher, Marianne Sawicki writes, “God’s kingdom [is] imaged as the table where there are places for everyone, and everyone has the place of honor, and everyone gets enough. The only table like that is [a mother’s] breast, the table where someone smiles and says, ‘Eat my body,’ and where the little child has the place of honor forever” (Seeing the Lord, 291).

Anne McGowan, PhD
Assistant Professor of Liturgy