Jesus could be a bit crafty at times; crafty, that is, in a good, teaching kind of way.
Today’s story is such an example of the astute and creative Jesus. The woman from Canaan who came chasing after him and the disciples was, evidently, persistent in her endeavours to get his attention, even to the point of irritation. We all know that Jesus would attend to anyone in need who asked for his help, and this Canaanite woman would be no different. Even though we might be a little taken aback by the somewhat offensive way in which Jesus refers to her, at least to our ears, the healing of her child was assured, even before he had said it. It is her faith that Jesus acknowledges, and her faith that brings about the healing.
But here’s the thing: Jesus actually had a bigger vista in mind as he attended to her need. That vista involved his disciples travelling with him, and the place into which they had travelled. Tyre and Sidon were cities of the Syrophoenician region of the Middle East, now modern day Lebanon, which lay beyond the northern border of the ancient lands of Israel. In other words, Jesus and his disciples had ventured into a foreign land, and among a people of a different creed. The Canaanite woman would not have been a believer in the God of Israel, even though He was standing before her in the person of Jesus.
But she somehow recognised Jesus as a man of God and a healer, so she calls out to him by his Jewish identity, ‘Son of David’. So, a Jewish man of God and a Canaanite woman of a different belief meet. On the woman’s side, death was her fear; on Jesus’ side, life was his gift. It is faith – a trust that hopes – which unites them. Faith for the woman lay in her hope for healing; and in Jesus’ case, that recognition of faith was a trust in the power of life over death. In this encounter between two people of different ethnicity, culture and belief, we see a manifestation of the mission of Jesus to bring the saving love of God to all those in need.
What happened between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel is the same as what happened last week in the saving of Peter from drowning or the week before in the feeding of the multitude, and it is the same as what would eventually happen on the cross. Life conquers death in this Son of David called Jesus, and faith driven by need will always be recognised by him.
Here’s the cleverness of Jesus, his good crafty way: his disciples were the ones who needed to learn this truth. They needed to be brought to that foreign land and to travel among those foreign people so as to learn that the God of life is for all lives who trust. The faith that Jesus looked for, and which he sought to teach to his disciples, cannot be confined to a set of doctrines or a certain religious practice, as vital as these are in forming us in faith. The mercy of God, manifest in the healing of Jesus, is for all who reach out in need.
As St Paul points out in today’s second reading: yes, the promise of God for life in Him would never be revoked from his Chosen People. But it is a gift to be given also to the pagans, who had found mercy by obedience; in other words, by faith. The lesson that Jesus taught his disciples as he came to heal the child of the Canaanite woman is the lesson we disciples of today are called to learn. God brings the gift of life to wherever death looms, recognising the faith of the one who reaches out in trust when need arises. To bring the gift of Jesus to others – to our family members, to our neighbours – in this time of COVID need, is to bring the gift of life, even as death looms over us. And in our need – Lord, help our unbelief – might we not reach out in faith to Jesus, who is the Lord of healing and mercy.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli27 January 2021