Choose Love – Eric Velandria, SJ

Matthew 15:21-28, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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On our fifth month of community quarantine, are we not alarmed that our Covid-19 infection cases have already breached 100,000, surpassing the number of cases in more populous Indonesia?  Recently, SWS reported that two out of ten families experience hunger daily.  And 1.7 out of ten Filipinos are now unemployed.  Then, there’s the ongoing allegation of extensive corruption in both the state health insurance system and the Department of Health.  Plus, the EJKs, fake news, trolls, hate propaganda, etc. The list of horror stories goes on.  And when one factors in all other events happening in the rest of the world, one cannot help but feel discouraged, depressed and desolate.

As I read today’s Gospel account about the Canaanite woman, I wondered if Jesus’s manner of dealing with us now echoes the way he dealt with the pagan woman.  Nagdarasal naman tayo.  Araw araw nagsisimba pa nga.  But why does Jesus seem to be coldly dismissing our cry for help?  Nakakainip naman po.

Gentiles or pagans such as the Canaanite woman were considered unclean, impure. Jews, like Jesus and his companions, were not supposed to be in contact with pagans.  Yet, Jesus ventured into Gentile territory for a break from the hostility of Jewish authorities. The Canaanite woman spotted and pursued him. She boldly approached him and cried out, “Lord, Son of David!  My daughter is tormented by a demon.”

She was not a Jew; did this woman really know the meaning of the Jewish Messianic title “Son of David”?   Jesus might have wanted to make sure she actually knew what she had just said.   Strangely, Jesus dismissed her appeal.  But, she would not take “no’ for an answer.  And she persisted in a manner that annoyed the disciples.  They asked him to “send her away.”   Although Jesus did not send her away, he coldly dismissed her a second time by insisting that his mission is only to the “lost sheep of Israel.”

Sure enough, the resolutely persistent Canaanite mother did not leave.  She took the opportunity instead to come closer to Jesus; she knelt before him and begged,  “Lord, help me!” Nagmamakaawa.   But then again, Jesus oddly gave her a third put-down: “it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Surprisingly, the woman turned the heartless image to her advantage.  Nakupo, e yung pong mga bata makalat naman kumain, mapapakinabangan ko po yun kalat nila!  Wala pong matatapon. Walang maaaksaya. Hindi po kayo manghihinayang.  “Please Lord for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters!”

Was Jesus intentionally dismissing her because she was a pagan?  Prior to this encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus had healed the servant of a pagan centurion (“Lord, I am not worthy….” Mt. 8:5 ff.) Besides, recall that Jesus himself disregarded the social barrier between Jews and pagans by entering Gentile territory.   He chose to be among the pagans.

My first take away: This Gospel account teaches that God’s blessings are for everyone who chooses Him.  The Canaanite woman chose Jesus and she was given deliverance.  Even today’s first reading affirms that God blesses one and all who obey His will—“even foreigners (or pagans) who observe what is right, doing what is just…God will make joyful in the house of prayer.”  In the second reading, St Paul, apostle to Gentiles proclaimed the same good news: “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” God will show mercy to people to both Jews and Gentiles—by His grace and through their faith in Christ.  Choose God at all times.

Again, let’s return to the Canaanite woman for a second take-away.  Jesus thrice dismissed her (or so it seemed).  But, I don’t think Jesus actually meant to dismiss her.  Jesus, The Teacher, seized the occasion as a teaching moment.  In delaying his response, Jesus facilitated a more personal encounter that helped the Canaanite woman deepen her faith in God.  He challenged her. Consequently, their conversation became deeper, more intimate, more honest.

From merely approaching Jesus as some kind of magician, the protracted encounter transformed the pagan woman into a true follower, a believer.  What began as a request to a powerful human person (wonder worker, sorcerer, magician) became a heartfelt prayer to the living God.   Eventually, she fell on her knees to give homage to Jesus, Lord, the Messiah.   The second take-away:  Be persistent in prayer.  God hears our prayers; he never means to dismiss us.  So, let us never be discouraged by darkness and the culture of death.

Finally, given our bleak situation during this Covid-19 pandemic, pray we be given the grace to be persistent in love.  May we become as persistent as the Canaanite woman: the driving force of her heart was love.  Love for her possessed daughter made her approach Jesus.  Love made her hope.  Love made her refuse to be discouraged by Jesus’s silence.  Likewise, may love for our suffering (seemingly possessed) nation be our driving force in approaching Jesus persistently.  Pray, too, for those who make us suffer. Take to heart the command of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Mt 5:44).” Stop the hatred.  Choose love, always.

*image from the Internet

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