The very first professor I encountered while in diaconal formation was unpopular among those in formation as he immediately began to challenge our beliefs and conceptions about God. And he did it in a particularly controversial way.
I think the shock of it was that we were not expecting this kind of method of imparting the faith. It was foreign to many, it seemed contradictory and confusing.
I was in the minority because I liked this guy. He challenged me to go beyond the boundaries of my pre-conceptions about God.
We all have our ideas about how God should act, and this Gospel, frankly, doesn’t fit those expectations. We are asked to look at our God and our relationship with Him in ways that perhaps we haven’t before.
All of the readings today deal with God’s love and acceptance and offer of salvation to all peoples.
And so I am at a loss to be able to explain Jesus’ immediate behavior toward this woman. In my study and preparation for the homily, I came across a number of explanations that I found to be, interesting…but also inadequate.
Oddly, the one person in this story who isn’t taken back by the encounter… is the woman. She might be humiliated, embarrassed, shamed? ….. maybe….. I don’t know that…
But she doesn’t seem to be phased by any of that. She continues, through the banter and the insults, to assert that Jesus is Lord and that He can heal her child.
This is her faith… Even though I am small, even though I am not of the right people, place or religion, …. you… will… have… mercy…on….me. I am everything that you are not, and yet I expect you will meet my need.
And because of this “great faith” Jesus does what He said He would not do. In effect, Jesus…. changes His mind.
And that, my friends, I realized was the real source of my uneasiness with this Gospel. Jesus behaves differently, in both His treatment of another person… and in that He relents.
We tend to look at God as rigid, un-flexible and immutable. We know that God is all-loving and all merciful…. But frankly, we are more comfortable with an all-knowing, all-powerful God. We are more at ease with being formal and rigid before God than we are at just being in His presence.
I realized that this has great implications for our prayer and for our own interior life and therefore, our relationship with God. And here is the shake-up…
Do you think that Jesus can still change his mind, as he did with that Canaanite woman?
We can be assured that Jesus will always do the will of the Father, but we can observe in Scripture that His will is not always accomplished in a straight line, but follows bends and curves…. different ways of achieving His will.
Can we influence Jesus as she did?
Well, I admit, I do not know the answer to that. But I don’t think anyone can say with absolute certainty one way or the other.
This much I do know. When we pray to the Lord, we shouldn’t be just going through the motions. There is a real conversation going on, as there was with the woman in this Gospel passage, which means that prayer is far simpler than we make it out to be, because we all know how to converse.
The Canaanite woman in this Gospel reminds me of another resourceful and witty woman – St. Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 16th century.
(One of the famous stories about her recalls the time that she was riding in a donkey cart and it was overturned, throwing her into muddy water. She said to God, “If this is the way you treat your friends, then it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”)
She had a very special relationship with God, and she wrote a great deal, describing her experiences with God. She is a Doctor of the Church. “Doctor of the Church” is a title given to those whose writings are deemed to be in accord with the doctrine of the church and the church believes these writings can be used as teachings. So what she says can be trusted.
In one of her writings, Teresa gives us some advice about prayer:
(Quote) “Remain in the Lord’s presence continually, and speak to Him, pray to him in your necessities, and complain to him about your troubles; be merry with him in your joys… All this you can do without set prayers, but with words that fit your desires and needs. This is an excellent way to advance in prayer, and very quickly.” (End quote)
In another place she simply says, “Avoid being bashful with God, as some people are.” Isn’t that a refreshing thought?
In Luke’s Gospel when the Virgin Mary finds her lost 12 year old son in the Temple, she talks straight with him: “Son, why have you done this to us?” Mary wasn’t bashful with Jesus. She is his mother, and she talks to him like a mother.
At the wedding feast of Cana, Mary tells Jesus that they’ve run out of wine. Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come.” What does Mary do? She turns to the stewards and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” Despite what Jesus said to her, she expects him to do what she asked. And he did.
Perhaps, this is a type of prayer we need to practice, at least occasionally. Not as an experiment, but as a leap of faith.
I suspect that few of us really talk to Jesus that way. We can learn from that Canaanite woman, from Teresa of Avila, and from Mary. We might discover how close Jesus really is to us, and how close we are to him. We might discover how easy it is to pray.
I suggest that you and I, sometime today, talk straight to Jesus about whatever we wish. I think we’ll enjoy it. St. Teresa was right: “This is an excellent way to advance in prayer… and very quickly.”