“I do believe, help my lack of trust!”
Homily for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 16, 2020
Let me begin by saying that today’s gospel passage is disconcerting, and difficult to read, because it goes against the usual image we have of Jesus. Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon, located in modern-day Lebanon. So, he is in pagan, or non-Jewish, territory. And a Canaanite (foreign) woman approaches him, asking that he cure her daughter who is quite ill. We are told that Jesus ignores the woman, not even saying one word to her. The disciples ask Jesus to send the woman away because she is bothering them. Jesus then argues that he was sent to the “lost sheep of Israel”. As the woman perseveres, Jesus refers to her in derogatory fashion: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Imagine! The all-merciful, normally compassionate Lord calling this woman a dog! It just doesn’t fit our usual perceptions. In the end, the woman perseveres and gets her wish. So, what’s going on here?
Scholars have generally taken one of two approaches. First, some argue that, as a human being, Jesus would naturally grow into his ministry. He often spent long nights in prayer, trying to discern his Father’s will, and at the beginning of it all, he fasted and prayed for forty days in the desert. Thus, his awareness that his ministry was universal, including all people, is something that he grew into. Second, other scholars contend that Jesus is actually testing the faith of the woman, or taking her initial faith and helping her to move deeper. In the end, he marvels, as he does after many of his miracles, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
I would like to take a look at this passage in terms of the need for perseverance, inasmuch as the woman persevered until her wish was granted. Let’s consider the story of how perseverance paid off in the case of two individuals we know quite well. Thomas Edison tried two thousand different materials in search of a filament for the light bulb. When none worked satisfactorily, his assistant complained, “All our work is in vain. We have learned nothing.” Edison replied very confidently, “Oh, we have come a long way and we have learned a lot. We know that there are two thousand elements which we cannot use to make a good light bulb.” Thomas Edison persevered and the rest is history.
Or consider the case of an aspiring free-lance artist, who tried to sell his sketches to a number of newspapers. They all turned him down. One Kansas City editor told him that he had no talent. But the young man had faith in his ability and he kept going, trying to sell his work. Finally, he got a job making drawings for church publicity material. He rented a mouse-infested garage to turn out the sketches, and he continued to produce other drawings in the hope that someone would buy them. One of the mice in the garage must have inspired him, for he created a character called Mickey Mouse. And Walt Disney was on his way.
Jesus taught that we must persist in prayer. For example, in the parable about the corrupt judge, he speaks of a woman who kept pestering the judge to get her rights, even though the judge “respected neither God nor man” (see Luke 18:1-8). In the end the corrupt judge, fearing that the woman will do him violence, settles in her favor. Jesus asks, “Will not God then do justice to his chosen who call out to him day and night? Will he delay long over them, do you suppose? I tell you, he will give them swift justice.”
In another parable on prayer (Luke 11:5-8) Jesus presents the case of someone who goes to a friend in the middle of the night to ask for three loaves of bread because he has unexpected company. The sleepy friend tries to get rid of his caller because it is the middle of the night and his family is in bed. Jesus concludes, “I tell you, even though he does not get up and take care of the man because of his friendship, he will do so because of his persistence, and give him as much as he needs.” Our Lord then concludes, “So, I say to you, ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you.”
Beyond perseverance, there is another aspect of today’s gospel I want to take a look at, namely that the Canaanite woman argues with Jesus. She is a woman on a mission, and she is not going to take no for an answer. When Jesus tells her it is not right to give the food of the children to dogs, she replies, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
In the gospels, this is not the only case of someone taking Jesus to task. In the account of the death of Lazarus (John 11), Jesus delays in getting there after receiving the message that the one he loves is ill. After Lazarus dies, his sister Martha goes out to meet Jesus, and she accuses him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would never have died.” Then she opens the door to new possibilities. “Even now I am sure that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” In other words, if you’ve got the power, use it. Do something.
There are stories similar to this in the Old Testament, including Abraham bartering with God on behalf of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-32), and Moses interceding on behalf of the people after they had worshipped the golden calf (Exodus 32:7-14).
I often hear from people who have become angry with God, yelled at God, and have even sworn at God—and then feel guilty about it. Their gut level concern is: Why? How could you have let this happen? They may be referring to the death of a child, the development of a life-threatening illness, the loss of a job, the experience of an injustice. In my own prayer during this time of pandemic, I have yelled at God in my heart, “These are people who are dying, innocent people who happened to be in the wrong place! Why the elderly? Why the weakest people in nursing homes and veterans facilities? Why should these people, the poor, the weak, people of color, pay the price for a paralysis of leadership? Why? Don’t you care?”
My mind goes to the story about Jesus asleep in a boat during a violent storm at sea (Mark 4:35-41). The disciples, in fear for their lives, rouse Jesus and ask, “Teacher, does it not matter to you that we are going to drown?” Jesus, don’t you care what’s happening to us? I can imagine Jesus feeling hurt by the question as he responds, “Of course I care!” And then he speaks to the storm: “Quiet! Be still!” And then, the wind fell off and everything grew calm. And Jesus asks, “Why are you so terrified? Why are you lacking in faith?”
Jesus knows, and understands, that we, his followers, are terrified at times. That, at times of pain, duress and challenge, we find our faith is shaken. And it is perfectly OK to scream of our fright, to wonder about our faith, even to question the goodness of God. As a matter of fact, Jesus knows perfectly how we feel. After all, on the cross he screamed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
In the midst of this pandemic, of economic upheaval, of lost jobs, of racial injustice, of government incompetence, I join Jesus in asking, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?” And I continue to pray Psalm 22 from which our Lord’s words on the cross are taken: “O my God, I cry out by day, and you answer not; by night, and there is no relief for me. Yet you are enthroned in the holy place, O glory of Israel! In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and they escaped; in you they trusted, and they were not put to shame…” And, on and on, I pray, like the Canaanite woman, like Jesus himself. I pray of my fear, and my trust; of my anger, and my love; of my doubt, and my hope; of crucifixion, and resurrection; of confusion, and certainty… And then my eyes fall on the neighboring psalm, the beloved twenty-third, which offers comfort: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want….Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side”…
God, who is compassionate, understands our fears, understands when our heart is aching, understands even when we become furious. Then, somehow, if we stay with it, God can help us to move to a deeper level of reassurance, healing and trust. For help, you may prayerfully read the story of Jesus’ healing of a possessed boy (Mark 9:14-29). When our Lord says to the boy’s father, “Everything is possible to a person who trusts.” The father replies, “I do believe! Help my lack of trust!” Perhaps in a world of pandemic and anxiety, this is an honest and authentic prayer for us all.