20th Sunday Year A
Sunday 20th August 2023
The Gospel Paraphrased
There are many fine translations of the Gospels readily available. This paraphrase is not meant to replace them. Rather the intention here is to offer a more contemporary rendering so that you can imaginatively translate the Gospel in your own situation.
This Sunday's Gospel Paraphrased
After heated discussions about the interpretation of Jewish Law and what makes a person fit or unfit to worship God, Jesus went for awhile to the pagan area near the cities of Tyre and Sidon. This was the only time he left Jewish territory in his ministry.
There a woman, a Canaanite, a member of the ancestral enemies of the Jews, came out to Jesus and was shouting out at him: ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David! My daughter is tormented by a devil!’
But Jesus said nothing to her.
So the disciples came and said: ‘Get rid of her, she’s yelling after us!’
Jesus replied: ‘I have been called to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’
But the woman came up, knelt at his feet as if in worship and begged again: ‘Lord, help me!’
He said: ‘It’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the puppies.’
‘Ah, yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘that’s true, but even the dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their owner’s table!’
Jesus answered her, ‘O Woman, what awesome faith you have! You will be given what you want.’ And from that very moment her daughter was healed.
The Psalms are the ancient prayers of the Jewish people, here paraphrased into contemporary language.
This Sunday's Psalm
Ps 66:2-3, 5-6, 8
God, be gracious to us, bless us,
let the light of your face shine on us.
On this earth, knowing your ways
brings salvation to all nations.
Let all nations rejoice and celebrate
for you judge them all justly,
and you will govern
all the nations on earth.
The people will acclaim you, O God,
they will truly acclaim you.
May God’s blessing be upon us,
and may all on earth revere God.
Words cannot contain our desire for God but they help direct our minds and hearts towards God's love and express our needs.
This Sunday's Prayer
Loving God, we often do not understand your ways. When our lives are full of distress and trouble, send us your Spirit that we may be like the Canaanite woman, full of faith and wit, never giving up: indeed forcing Jesus to bring his light and love into our lives. We ask this in his name, confident that you will hear us.
The Commentaries Summarised
As a Church we are in a web of wisdom that comes to us both from tradition and contemporary writers. This section offers a summary of some commentaries on the Gospel. Also below is a list of the books and articles that have been consulted in compiling this Sunday's "Pray As You Can" and which could be used for further reading.
This Sunday's Commentary
This is not an easy Gospel. We are shocked to see Jesus treating this woman so rudely. A number of commentators say that what he said, he must have said nicely, with a smile that lessened its harshness but I think that says more about their sensibilities than about the story itself. This is a story we have to work at to gain some understanding of its meaning and one of the first things we need to put aside is our prejudices about how God and Jesus ‘should act’.
Just before this story, Jesus had a number of discussions, first with the religious leaders and Pharisees and then with his disciples on the nature of unclean/clean. In other words, what made people unfit of fit for worship of God. Jesus then withdraws out of his country for some time away.
In that context, a woman who is not only a pagan but a Canaanite approaches – how bad could a person’s background get! From the time of the Israelites coming into the land over a millennium before, the Canaanites had been their serious enemies. Firstly, they refused passage to them, then they threatened the Israelite purity of worship with their pagan practices, then over the centuries they collaborated with the invading armies against them, then they collaborated with the invading Greeks and built up an economic system that militated against the local Jewish people. In fact, it could almost be said that their economic security took the food out of the mouths of the local Jewish people in Jesus’ time. Out of their midst comes a mother determined to get help for her daughter.
Jesus makes it clear in this Gospel text that his personal mission is to the people of Israel. Yes, the full mission is to all people but the movement out from Israel is to be the work of his disciples. Why the divine plan is like this, we do not know. Salvation is first offered to the Jews and then through the remnant faithful of them to the rest of the world. The relationship between Jews and Gentiles was a burning issue for the early Church. That issue is the basis of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It is not an issue for us simply because there are so few Jewish Christians.
There were wandering magicians in Jesus’ time and one could well assume that this woman approached Jesus as one of them. But God in his own plan gave this woman a level of faith in the person of Jesus that not even the disciples had yet come to. She repeatedly calls him Lord, recognises him as Son of David and kneels to worship him – she who had only heard of Jesus by hearsay. Jesus is astounded at her level of faith. At the beginning of the Gospel, we have the story of the pagan Magi worshipping Jesus, a sign of what is to come. At the end of the Gospel we have Jesus’ injunction to the disciples to go out to the ends of the earth preaching the Gospel. Here, in the centre we have the simplicity of a parent’s passionate love for her child leading her to a faith that is a model for all Christians, whether Jew or Gentile.
Christian conversion is promoted by conversation. This section is a response to and a development on the knowledge gained from the commentary section.
This Sunday's Exposition
This Canaanite woman was not going to be stopped. Ignored, insulted she just kept on coming and she was prepared to use all resources to get what she wanted: shouting, begging, wit. Note that wit, as we will come back to it. Her screaming nagging persistence may seem like hysteria to us but in that society that was the accepted way for the weak to get attention. Two of Jesus’ parables commend this type of behaviour; one even recommends it as an attitude in prayer. No, Jesus is not recommending hysteria but rather a single-minded devotion to what one truly wants coupled with persistence.
This woman had these in spades but she was also adaptable: shouting and yelling, kneeling and begging, wittily turning Jesus’ words back on himself. (In the Poems section see how Kilian McDonnell likens her to a wrestler who nails Jesus to the floor!) One of the problems with single-minded devoted persistence is that if often narrows down a person’s mind and heart so that he or she sees only one solution to the problem. Then an ability to adapt to a situation, see a variety of possible solutions is lost. God may well be offering a different grace in the situation but unless one remains open, the recognition of what God is really doing can be lost. This woman is never bogged down, her witty response to Jesus – and it is very witty – shows how alert she is to the way Jesus’ reacts. She shows how we need to be single minded in what we want, adaptable in how we ask and prepared to take Jesus’ word to heart – which she does. On the strength of his word alone she believes her daughter at home has been cured and she returns, confident in faith.
Reflection is an essential element of our growth in Christ. As we reflect over what we have learnt and ponder it in our hearts, we come to recognise the presence of God in our lives.
This Sunday's Reflection
This Gospel story witnesses to a tension in the life of Jesus, and one that we experience in our own: we can’t do everything. Being human involves being limited in time and in place. While our desires and hopes, not only for ourselves but for others may be as wide as the world, the reality is that we live one day at a time in our own particular body. Jesus, too, experienced that. He had moved out of Jewish territory because he needed space. On one hand, he had the religious authorities hounding him, picking up on his every word. On the other hand, he had the crowds clamouring for miracles – understandably, he was healing their sick. While miracles were a part of Jesus’ mission, they were not the core. The core of his mission was to call people to faith in God and his promises. Given the way everyone seemed to be missing the point, both he and the disciples needed space. So for the only time in his ministry, he leaves the land of Israel.
Then out comes this pagan woman, almost hysterically wanting a miracle. Jesus states that his personal calling is to the lost of the house of Israel. She has no problem with that, she is more than ready to acknowledge the primacy of his Jewish mission, but she still wants her daughter healed. Her passionate love for her daughter opens her to the possibilities within this person of Jesus: three times she calls him ‘Lord’; she names him ‘Son of David’; and she kneels to worship. No wonder Jesus seems blown away. This is the very faith that he was wanting – not even the disciples had come to see what she had recognised. Her commitment to her particular calling as mother, when brought before the person of Jesus, enhanced her faith. She returned home, just as Jesus returned to his land. In later life, how she must have wondered about this person, Jesus, who she had so exceptionally understood. A few moments in her life at the service of her daughter and her vision of reality was changed forever. Yes, our lives can seem to be confined by the particular, but with faith, they can reach beyond our imaginings!
Looking at art works or movies is a great way to open ourselves to the meaning of the Gospels. Seeing can bypass our preconceived notions, giving us new vistas of enlightenment. With painting or sculpture one needs to sit quietly and absorb the dynamics of the piece. The drama of movies more easily engages us and offers a way to conversation about the Gospel with other members of your family.
This Sunday's Visual Meditation
– These miniatures from the Book of Hours of the Duc of Berry show Jesus and the disciples ignoring the woman and then Jesus being astounded at her faith.
– In this pen and ink by Rembrandt notice how studiously Jesus us ignoring the woman. Notice also the women disciples in the group.
– The Woman of Canaan by Harold Copping.
The purpose of mulling meditations is to offer a few ideas that one can mull about while doing other occupations. There are many things we do in our day that do not require our full attention - some things which are largely done on automatic pilot - like driving a car or peeling the potatoes. While we give these our attention, part of our mind is still at work mulling on other things and unless it is given something positive to feed on, we easily feed on negative thoughts. Personally I find mulling time the most likely time for God to get through to me. Because I am not so conscious of myself, God gets through the cracks and opens my heart to look at life differently.
Two practical times for mulling can be when exercising and when driving. Some small preparations for integrating such prayer into these exercises can be helpful.
As you do your preparatory stretches, pray the line of the Psalm "I praise you God for I am wonderfully made!"
Similarly when doing your concluding stretches use the prayer of St Clare "Praised be you, my God, for creating me!"
Have some music that you find helps you turn you mind and heart to God and play that for the first 10 minutes or so of your trip.
This Sunday's Mulling Meditation
The ground on which this woman’s faith was built was her passionate love for her daughter. She was prepared to risk so much for the love of her.
– Over this coming week, mull on how God uses your love for people as a means for building up your faith.
– Notice the times when you are prepared to go beyond yourself in service of others. When this happens, thank and praise God.
– As you go through this week, consciously pray for those you are serving.
In the Letter of James, we are told that the Scriptures are like a mirror in which we can see ourselves. In this type of meditation we take a piece of Scripture, hold it before us and consider what echoes within our heart. These echoes help us to see who we are before God and how we are loved. What usually echoes in us are situations that we are dealing with in our lives. When something strikes us, we do not actively try to solve the situation or work it through. Rather we sit holding it in God's love. The point of such a meditation is to make space within the situation for God's love to be. In 'sitting with' such a situation, painful or sad, we come to recognise the love of God that is at work on our lives. The suggestions for Mirror reflections can also be used for Exercise reflections but wouldn't be advised for Driving Prayer as often some degree of emotion or distraction might rise in such prayer.
This Sunday's Mirror Meditation
Jesus does not make all things easy for us in the life of faith.
Rest quietly in the love of your God.
When you are at rest, remember a time when God had seriously tested your faith. Sit with that for some time, recalling what you felt and thought at the time, what result came of the situation.
As you rest in God’s love, ask what more you can learn from that experience. These times of grace are not only for the past – they can continue to feed us as we pray and meditate over them through the years.
Rest in God’s love