At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,"Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!My daughter is tormented by a demon."But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.Jesus' disciples came and asked him,"Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us."He said in reply,"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, "Lord, help me."He said in reply,"It is not right to take the food of the childrenand throw it to the dogs."She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scrapsthat fall from the table of their masters."Then Jesus said to her in reply,"O woman, great is your faith!Let it be done for you as you wish."And the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.
Today’s Gospel presents us with a scenario that really seems to be an affront to the sort of attitude that popular culture associates with Jesus. But to understand exactly what is going on, it’s first necessary for us to demythologize Jesus a bit—to take Him out of the realm of the happy, pious thoughts that most people have about Him and understand Him as He truly is portrayed in the Gospels. The most common error about Jesus is that He is just a big, fluffy love-ball—a pushover who lets people trample all over His teaching, and who would have His followers do the same. But when we see Jesus in the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as anything but! True, He tells his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’ when evildoers seek to harm them. But the one thing Jesus never does is tell his followers to compromise their beliefs in any way, shape, or form. In fact, Jesus constantly rebukes people throughout the Gospels, calling them to task, holding them responsible for their actions, and—while offering forgiveness of sins—commanding them to cease their sinful behavior. At no point does Jesus say, “Oh, whatever you want is fine. Just be a nice person, and you can ignore everything else.” No! He continually calls people to task, and is always uncompromising and unwavering in His teaching. My favorite example of this comes from the Gospel of St. John 6:60-66—a tremendous scene where many of Jesus’ disciples turn their backs on him and leave. Yet Jesus does not attempt to stop them, because He is not about to water down his teaching for those whose hearts are too hard to accept the Truth!
Now, in this Sunday’s Gospel we have a startling scene, in which Jesus primarily refuses to grant assistance to a woman because of her nationality. Jesus denies his grace to her, effectively saying that she is unworthy because His teaching is for the sons of Israel, and not for the foreign unbelieving dogs (a tremendous insult in that culture!). He basically says His teaching is too good for her! Harsh words from the Prince of Peace!
This scene takes place relatively early in Matthew’s Gospel, and eventually we see a greater shift in the focus of Jesus’ ministry as it becomes increasingly clear that the house of Israel is composed of hearts too hardened to accept the Messiah as He is. But early on, we have indications that people outside of the Jewish race are attracted to Jesus’ teachings and are seeking Him out. This story is one such example.
After some persistence (and a well-placed retort), the woman secures what she desires: the healing of her daughter. In doing so, however, she lets slip the tremendous Faith that she has in her heart. And it was this Faith that Jesus sought to uncover by effectively playing “hard to get.” Jesus had to ascertain—and to demonstrate publicly—that this purported infidel was not merely paying lip service out of desperation, but that she truly believed in Jesus and desired to follow Him. So it is with us as well. It’s not enough merely to pay lip service to God, expecting that that is sufficient for salvation.
What we see here is Jesus offering his salvation to two distinct groups: the house of Israel, and others who truly believe. This Canaanite woman represents for us the Gentile races to whom St. Paul would minister, and who would come to believe in Jesus as the Savior of the world. Although Jesus says rather strongly that his teaching is only for the house of Israel, he still entertains the notion of this Gentile woman having Faith. Moreover, it calls into question exactly who Jesus intended to save by His death on the Cross. This brings me to an interesting observation:
Did Jesus die for all, or just for some? This has been a fundamental question for centuries, and it’s one which was asked a few years ago and will most likely come about with the advent of the new translation of the Roman Missal. It’s a question whose answer bears repeating, lest we lose sight of the end to which our Faith is directed.
The current translation of the Roman Missal translates the words of consecration of the chalice thus:
“...This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven...”
The new translation will say “...which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins...”
That Latin text for this phrase “for all” (which comes from both St. Matthew’s and St. Mark’s accounts of the Last Supper—26:28 and 14:24 respectively) is actually pro multis, that is, “for many.” It seems to me that there’s a pretty big difference between all and many...effectively the difference between all and some (whom we hope will be many!).
First of all, before anyone starts to complain, the Church is not saying that the salvation which Jesus effected by shedding His blood on the Cross is somehow limited. In 1653, Pope Innocent X declared rather definitively that Christ shed his blood for all humanity without exception (Cum occasione). This belief is found throughout the teaching and liturgical praxis of the Church (lex orandi lex credendi, after all!). The Roman Catechism, which came in the years following the Council of Trent, makes it abundantly clear that we must make a fundamental distinction between the salvation itself and the fruits of that salvation (namely, its acceptance). Anyone can look around and say with a fairly high degree of certainty that while the Church has always believed (and continues to believe) that Christ died for all humanity, many have not accepted the salvation offered to them, and thus the fruits are somewhat less than the potential. [Let’s face it...if the entire world accepted the salvation made available to them through Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, the world might be a bit better off...but I digress.]
This discrepancy in translation between all and many doesn’t represent a rupture in tradition, and the Church has made it clear that all is valid insofar as it accurately reflects the teaching of the Church that Christ died for all. Multis, on the other hand, is more precise, and it gives us pause, as we consider what is required of us to be considered one of “the many.” As with the Canaanite woman, we who believe are called to bear witness to our belief, and to distinguish ourselves from the collective all by our professed Faith. In our daily lives, we have to be ready, willing, and able to proclaim our Faith, even in the face of adversity, that God may know our Faith to be true. Like Jesus, and like the Canaanite woman, we must be uncompromising in our belief; we must stand up for what we know to be the Truth of the Gospel, even when it is unpopular or seemingly “intolerant”; we must be unashamed of the great gift God has given us in our Faith, and we must be unstoppable in our proclamation of that Faith, lest we be thought by God merely to be foreign, unbelieving dogs! This is exactly the example that Jesus gives us throughout the Gospel—loving all of humanity, but not allowing society to beat us up with its falsehoods and social fads in the name of not making waves!
The reward of such uncompromising Faith is that very salvation which Jesus won for those who believe and accept His salvation—a prize of eternal life in union with our Heavenly Creator, who welcomes us to His banquet, saying “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” And if we should be so blessed, we, too, might be able to eat the scraps from our Master’s table!