The Relentless Pursuit of Mercy
20th Sunday OT_Cycle A
How often have we prayed to God for the healing of a friend or family member, and a few days later, when nothing miraculous has happened, we raise our eyes to heaven and say- “Thanks for nothing, God!” or possibly we look at ourselves and say, “I don’t deserve that anyway” and we continue on about our life. Sometimes we do this because we do not actually believe that our prayers matter in God’s eternal plan, and other times we just want an excuse to complain about his injustice.
There are examples of those who did not fall into this- let us look to St. Monica as a model: She was the wife of a pagan man named Patricius and mother of the great St. Augustine. Monica had a difficult home life, when she would return from caring for the poor and praying, her husband would criticize her for her piety and care for insignificant souls while her mother-in-law whom she lived with accused her of neglecting her duties as a wife. Meanwhile, for much of his youth, her son Augustine spent himself in pursuit of a successful career in the senate. The whole time, St. Monica prayed for them without ceasing. When Augustine announced he had joined the Manichean sect, she drove him from the house.
She won her husband to the faith first; he was baptized just one year before his death. Augustine took much longer, and at one point in her frustration, Monica was pestering to her local bishop so often he finally told her, “Go now, I beg you; it is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.” St. Augustine was baptized in 387 and went on to be one of the greatest saints- and probably the greatest theologian- in the history of the Church.
St. Monica and the Canaanite women in the gospel today teach us the same spiritual lesson- that we are to pursue God’s mercy with relentless abandon. I think a close look at today’s gospel can tell us a lot about our own spiritual habits and, on a deeper level, about our faith.
First, we notice that she is a pagan, a non-Jew, a Canaanite. Anyone with elementary Old Testament knowledge knows the Canaanites were enemies of the Jewish people. Yet, we also notice that this Canaanite woman is leaving her home country and heading in the direction of Jerusalem.
We are not told why Jesus has such a profound impact on her: but whatever the reason, she decides to call out after him- this is where things get interesting. The gospel tells us, “But he did not answer her a word.” One commentator of the scriptures says, concerning this encounter, that “God’s silence as sole reply to impassioned prayer is perhaps the most mysterious and trying aspect of the life of faith.” (Erasmo Vol. 2, pg. 430)
How could Jesus be silent in the face of such a plea? We really ask: how could he be silent in the face of our pleas, of our petitions? Perhaps God is so big, his plan so intricate, that our small needs just don’t fit, or don’t matter enough. Or, as I said at the beginning, we know we are sinners and that God owes us nothing. I can think of a million reasons why God ought not to listen to any of my prayers- so why bother.
Further, there is also a natural cynic in all of us that we must face. One of the contributors to my favorite food blog, Epicurious, was the chef in the restaurant atop the South Tower of the world trade center from 1998-2001. On 9/11 he stopped in the lobby to fix his glasses and was still there when the plane struck the tower, which allowed him to make it out and survive. If his sweet aunt approached you and told you, I pray for Mike every day and God, in his divine providence, intervened to save him that day. You might ask- what of the other 3000 people were they not worth intervening for? How exactly to we confront this cynicism so natural to us, and what does divine providence look like in the face of such tragedy?
Well, in attempt to approach this difficult question, we return to that Canaanite woman, who faces the silence of Jesus whom she pursues. Regardless of what is going on in that woman’s mind and heart, she refuses to give up in the face of his silence, and instead goes up before him and does him homage. This means she basically prostrates herself before him, kneeling down in the dirt. She bows at his feet and says very simply, “Lord, help me.”
Jesus’ answer here is a shocking and certainly mysterious. He tells the woman: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to little dogs.” How could Jesus possibly say this to a woman kneeling in the dirt before him, begging him to heal her daughter? Certainly a mysterious phrase, but in the woman’s answer, we see a profound lesson in the spiritual life on full display. She answers him saying, “Yes, Lord, and even the little dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their lords’ table.”
This Canaanite knows her position before God, she knows she can demand nothing from Jesus, for she is not a Jew, she has nothing to give as payment, she has no leverage at all. She embraces the identity of the little dog for she knows it is from this lowly position that she can appeal to Jesus’ mercy.
This scene perfectly depicts our own poverty before God. We can demand nothing of God in the order of justice- but we don’t need to, for we have a God who chooses to give us everything in his mercy, everything is his gift to us in love.
So why is he silent? Because we need to be reminded of our humility before him, we need to be brought low as the woman is today’s gospel. St. Claude tells us that each refusal we meet in prayer is part of God’s strategy to increase our fervor. Therefore, “the more he seems to be unwilling, the more you must insist.”
We have no worries here, for if we demand something from God which would not be good for us, but we do so humbly and with an open heart, God will quickly correct our desire, or show us why he does not plan to answer our prayer. Because the point of all of this, the goal of our petitions to God, is not accomplishing particular things here on earth.
We see by the end of this gospel story that something much bigger than the healing of the daughter has taken place. This woman has reached for salvation, she has grappled with God, entered into this real, mysterious, rugged, relationship with Jesus which changed her heart.
This is what we are called to, this is what St. Monica lived, who never wavered in her prayer, and by her many tears and petitions won her husband and son for Christ. We follow the example of these holy women. Never waver in the spiritual struggle, never assume anything is a lost cause, for the silence of God is always an invitation to ever deeper prayer, to deeper relationship. We know we are unworthy, but we do not look to our own worthiness for salvation, we look to God’s promises. He promised us happiness in this life and eternal life in the world to come- why then would we hesitate to demand exactly that from him?