The Lord reveals his salvation to all.
All the nations will praise God.
God’s favor to Israel is irrevocable.
Jesus heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman because of her great faith.
Background on the Gospel Reading
Today we move ahead in our reading of Matthew’s Gospel. Last week we read about Jesus walking on the water and the disciples’ confession of faith that Jesus is the Son of God. If we were reading Matthew’s entire Gospel, we would have read about Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees about Jewish purity laws. Jesus argues that it is not what goes into us that makes us unclean; he is referring to the strict Jewish dietary rules. Instead our words and our actions—what comes out of us—make us unclean because they emerge from a heart that is unclean.
Knowing about Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees helps us to understand today’s Gospel. In fact the story heightens the surprise and shock we feel as we hear Jesus’ exchange with the Canaanite woman. The woman, who is not Jewish, approaches Jesus, requesting that he heal her demon-possessed daughter. At first Jesus ignores her; he says nothing. The disciples ask Jesus to send her away, and Jesus agrees, remarking that he was sent to minister to the Jews alone.
The woman persists, paying homage to Jesus, and yet Jesus denies her request again. He even insults her, using a Jewish word of derision for Gentiles, “dog.” But the woman cleverly turns Jesus’ insult into an affirmation of faith. Only then does Jesus grant her request and heal her daughter.
Jesus’ unresponsiveness to this woman may strike us as uncharacteristic or shocking. Yet in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry is directed primarily to the people of Israel. At only a very few points, such as the one found in today’s Gospel, do we find Jesus anticipating the later Christian ministry to the rest of the world.
Behind Matthew’s text we can hear this early Christian community’s struggle to understand how God’s selection of Israel is consistent with two events: Israel’s rejection of Jesus and the Gentiles’ acceptance of Jesus. Just as Jesus was surprised by the faith expressed by the Canaanite woman, so too the first Christians were surprised that the Gentiles would receive the salvation God offered through Christ. In today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we hear the apostle Paul considering this same concern.
The faith that the Canaanite woman expresses is an affirmation of and confidence in God’s abundant mercy. Yes, salvation comes through Israel, but it overflows for the benefit of all.