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Caution: Putting a Sunday homily on the Website is tricky business. All the viewer has is a written text. A homily, on the other hand, is "an oral event". It may not have been said or heard the way it was written. In addition, a roughly ten-minute homily is part of a roughly one-hour worship event in which God and God's people communicate with each other by means of ritual, symbol, song, proclamation, prayer. Not everything in these homilies is original. As a homilist, I rely on and at times borrow from other homilists and writers who are not properly mentioned in this format. I am often indebted to them.

Father William Marrevee, s.c.j.

20th Sunday Ordinary Time Year A

On first hearing, a strange and shocking Gospel story.

An honest request on the part of the Canaanite woman (that is a non-Jewish woman, a Gentile) to have her daughter healed. But that request only meets with an apparent reluctance on the part of Jesus even to consider her request because she is non-Jewish. Can you imagine, today, a doctor or a nurse refusing to treat a patient because they were not from the right family background, or were not the right colour? Very strange.

What is going on here? What is the significance of the story?

See it as a kind of game, with the principal opponents being Jesus and the Canaanite woman. They could be playing a chess match or a card game or a duel. The opponents feel each other out, they test each other, they search for the weak point in the opponent’s defense. After move and counter-move one player “lays the killer thrust”. In this case, it is the woman who places Jesus into checkmate. She plays the killer trump: faith, unconditional confidence. She catches Jesus by surprise. He is powerless in the face of such faith. He has no defense. He has no choice, but to give in.

The story is a beautiful illustration of what Jesus looks for in us. Nothing can deter the woman, she refuses to be put off. The initial silence of Jesus, the suggestion that he is sent for the Jews only, even his calling her names (“dog”! how rude!) In the story, these can be understood as a gradual build-up that reaches its climax in Jesus’ own astonishment: “Woman, you have great faith!” What counts for Jesus is the woman’s reckless faith.

Face to face with Jesus the woman does not claim any title. All she puts before Jesus is her need and her confidence. She is modest and reckless at the same time; she is persistent and patient. Does Jesus find the same sort of faith in us? Modest and reckless, persistent and patient…? What a grace it would be for us if Jesus were to say: “Woman! Man! You have great faith!”

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