This Sunday, Is the Church Too Proud to Beg?
Jesus himself sees the Church as a Gentile mother begging to save her children, and the biggest problem for the Church in the 21st century is that she is too proud to beg.
That may be putting it too bluntly — there is more to the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) than that — but this Sunday the Gospel about the Canaanite woman with a possessed daughter, along with Isaiah’s vision of the Church and Paul’s vision of the Jewish people, is a strong warning message.
What kind of mother is the Church?
In Revelations 12, the sign in the heavens tells us that the Church is like Mary — a glorious mother who is suffers and needs God’s protection and care. St. Paul says the same when he tells the Galatians about his “labor pains” for them, making the Church a laboring mother suffering for her children.
In the Sundays since Pentecost, Jesus has given us several more images of the Church that expand on the theme of the suffering Church. He gave the analogy of the fisherman’s net, the field sown with wheat and weeds, and then demonstrated what he meant in the multiplication of the loaves and in the boat in the storm.
Today, we get another figure of the Church. St. Remigius, quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas, says the Canaanite woman “figures the Holy Church gathered out of the Gentiles,” noting that “This woman came out of her own country, because the Holy Church departed from former errors and sins.”
If the Gospel wants us to see the Church in the Canaanite woman, then we have a great new image showing us what the Church today needs.
First, the Church needs to be urgent, knowing her children are in the grip of Satan.
Jesus is on his way between Jewish regions, passing through the Gentile countries of Tyre and Sidon, when a mother comes out to where he is passing and cries out “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Love is what compels her. Anyone who has been a parent knows how terrified she must feel: Her daughter is literally possessed.
But this is what is happening to souls today. We are not literally possessed by the devil. He doesn’t have to possess us because we have given ourselves to him for free, choosing money, sex, and power — material comfort, bodily pleasure and radical individualism — over God’s law.
The Church’s job number one is to go out of her way to plead, urgently, for the souls that are being destroyed. Only love can compel her to do so.
Second, the Church has to have a faith that transcends social work.
The woman gets nothing but resistance from the Apostles and then from Jesus himself who says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
The woman responds with an act of faith. When she first called Jesus “Son of David,” showing that she knows he is fully man. Now she calls him “Lord,” a name for God.
“Lord, help me,” she says. She knows the power or her adversary and she believes in the power of her savior.
A Church that doesn’t recognize the divine nature of Jesus won’t recognize the demonic nature of evil. As Leon Bloy put it — as quoted by Pope Francis in his first homily as pope — “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.”
The Church needs the faith of the Canaanite woman to know she is overmatched by the power of sin, and needs God desperately.
Third, the Church needs the hope that only the humble can have.
Jesus next says words that would turn a proud woman away. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus tells the woman.
But she is not proud. She answers, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
This is the humility of a woman who knows who she is, a beggar for grace at God’s feet — but also knows that God will give her what she needs.
Does the Church today have that humility? Do we consider ourselves lucky to get God’s grace, like dogs under a table? Or are we more like the Apostles who tell those who are spiritually desperate to leave us alone?
The first two readings explain why we should have that humility.
Paul talks about the greatness of the Jews, the Chosen People, and says they are still Chosen: “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” The Gentiles he is preaching to in Rome — and us — are God’s Plan B. We are the backup plan and all we have, we have by his mercy.
Isaiah prophecies that God’s salvation will be offered to “foreigners” — us — and that the house he builds for us on the holy mountain will be a “house of prayer.”
This is exactly the passage Jesus refers to when he cleanses the temple, overturning tables and driving the moneychangers out. St. Jerome points out that he doesn’t just complain that money is making his house of prayer into a “den of thieves,” but that money is making it “a place of business.”
This is the Church too often today, clinging to bureaucracy and the institutions that were founded for evangelical purposes — to teach, heal and convert — but are now exist to perpetuate themselves without their transcendent motives. The Church too often glad-hands the complacent, careful not to offend the faithless while their daughters and sons fall deeper into the embrace of Satan.
This spunky woman from Canaan has a lot to teach the Church.
She never forgets her place, but she is strong and forceful on behalf of her daughter. She can hold her own with Christ, while never forgetting that he owes her nothing.
Speaking to the conclave that would soon elect him pope, Pope Francis gave two images of the Church. When the Church focuses on herself she becomes like the “deformed woman of the Gospel,” the bent old woman in Luke, stuck looking at her own navel. He said he wanted her to be a “fruitful mother” who can “go out from herself” with “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”
Can we? The Church isn’t some distant group of men in miters; it is each of us. We all have neighbors who are in the thrall of great evil — or maybe we have children who are, or maybe we are. Do we bring this to Jesus urgently, insistently, refusing to take No for an answer?
“God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all,” says Paul.
Jesus pays the Canaanite woman one of the all-time great compliments in the New Testament. “Oh woman, great is your faith!” he says, then gives a reverse fiat: “Let it be done for you as you wish.”
He will say the same to everyone who follows her example.