Two Women and Two Virtues

Homily for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.

Mother Teresa was once living in a small orphanage in Calcutta. One day there was nothing for the orphans to eat. So, Mother called them together and said to them, “Children, we having nothing to eat today. But if we pray to God He will surely provide.” Mother prayed with the orphans. Then she took them with her into the streets to beg.

Now in the same neighborhood as the orphanage there was a baker who hated Mother Teresa. Mother went to him and begged, “Please, give us something to eat.” The baker looked at her in anger and spat in her face. Mother calmly wiped off her face and said in reply, “Thank you for what you have given me. Will you now give something for my children?”

Deeply moved by her humility, the baker apologized to Mother Teresa and gave the children something to eat. From that moment on he began to make regular donations to the orphanage.

Why did God allow the baker to treat Mother Teresa this way? So that she might manifest her faith and humility. Why did Jesus treat the Canaanite woman the way He did in our gospel? For the same reason: So that she might manifest her faith and humility.

The Canaanite woman is a model of faith. She professes her faith in Jesus as “Lord.” She then asks Jesus not once, not twice, but three times to heal her daughter. Jesus ignores her the first time, dismisses her the second time, and seems to insult her the third time. Most of us would’ve given up after being treated this way, but she perseveres. And her faith is rewarded. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

The Canaanite woman is also a model of humility. When Jesus refers to the Jews as children and herself as a dog, she doesn’t get upset. Like Mother Teresa, she remains calm. And not only does she accept the unflattering title of a dog, but she humbles herself even more in her reply: “even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” I don’t know if you caught that, but the woman kind of “one-ups” Jesus. Jesus honors the Jews by calling them children. But the woman honors them even more by calling them masters. Imagine someone calling you a demeaning name. And imagine not only accepting the name, but turning around and praising the person who said it. That’s basically what the Canaanite woman does in our gospel.

Jesus treated the Canaanite woman this way in order to manifest her faith and humility. She was a Gentile, but Jesus knew that she had more faith and humility than many of the Jews. And, so, He gave her the chance to demonstrate that fact. Some Jews in the Gospel of John, for example, responded with pride when Jesus spoke unflatteringly about their lack of faith. Jesus told them that they did not listen to Him because they belonged to the devil. And instead of accepting this admonition from Jesus, they called Him a Samaritan and said that He was possessed (cf. John 8:42-48).

As He does so often in the gospels, Jesus chooses the most unexpected person—in this case, a Gentile woman—as a model of virtue. He chooses her as model of faith and humility for the Jews. And He chooses her as a model of faith and humility for us as well. Do we persevere in prayer when we don’t get what we want, when Jesus seems to ignore us? How do we respond when others insult us? Do we turn the other cheek, or do we hurl an insult in return?

Jesus, help us grow in faith and humility this week. Help us to be like Mother Theresa and the Canaanite woman. When our faith is tested, when our pride is injured, show us the path of perseverance and peace. Amen.