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Lectio Divina - Sunday, August 20th, 2017

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Sunday, August 20th, 2017
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reading from Matthew 15:21–28

Other Readings:

Isaiah 56:1, 6-7, Romans 11:13-15, 29-32

Lectio

21 Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.22And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”23But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”24 He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”25 But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”26He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”27She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”28 Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!  My daughter is tormented by a demon.”  But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.  Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”  He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”  She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”  Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour. The region of Tyre and Sidon is found on the coast of modern-day Lebanon. Jesus is moving away from the public eye in Galilee after his blistering encounter with the Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem to challenge his teaching. Jesus travels outside of the land of Israel with his most trusted disciples for the first—and apparently only—time. Here, in a public setting, Jesus is approached by a woman who lives nearby. She is identified as a Canaanite (that is, a Gentile), but even so she knows the messianic significance of the title “Son of David.” She honors Jesus with titles that he and his disciples would have readily understood, in hopes that he will pity her—the word is also translated as having mercy—and stop and heal her daughter. Middle East cultural norms immediately come into play. She is out of bounds, clearly alone and without a male to protect her honor. But her child is tormented by a demon and she knows that Jesus can heal. Jesus completely ignores her. This protects them both from public scandal and shame. But he did not count on her persistence. Soon his disciples have had enough and beg Jesus to send her away. Jesus shocks the assembled crowd by speaking directly to the woman. He tells her that he is sent only to the lost sheep in the house of Israel. Israel and the Jews are his focus; implied, perhaps, is that a ministry to the Gentiles will follow. The plan backfires. The woman is not silenced but emboldened by the fact that Jesus has spoken directly to her. She has gotten through. She steps up her game by falling at his feet in an effort to impede his progress. It works. Jesus stops. She pleads for help. Jesus’s response to her can seem callous and curt. He reminds this Gentile that it is not fair to take the children’s food and toss it to their dogs. The term “toss” suggests a playful gesture consistent with the treatment of a small household pet. It is interesting to note that dogs were not kept as pets in Jewish homes, but were often welcome in the homes of the Gentiles. The Greek word that Matthew uses here suggests “little dogs” that are kept as pets to delight the children. These small dogs eat the scraps that fall from the children’s plates, but only after the children have first been fed. Jesus is establishing a correct order here. First the children, then the little household dogs. He is not saying “no”; he is saying “wait.” Jesus is delighted by the woman’s response. He addresses her now politely as “woman” and honors her for her great faith. The use of “woman” is endearing—it is the same way Jesus speaks to his mother at the wedding feast in Cana and from the cross. It translates “my dear one” in a single word. Of course her daughter was healed, and instantly.

Meditatio

Jesus needs time away. The demands of his public ministry weigh heavily upon him and his disciples. He has to get beyond the boundaries of Israel to escape the pressures associated with revealing the kingdom of God to those with ears to hear and eyes to see, but who make themselves deaf and blind to his message. We too need time away. We refer to these times as “retreats.” Spiritual retreats can be occasions to retool and refocus our efforts to live our lives in Christ. But like Jesus we can never completely get away from who we are called to be. This retreat to the region of Tyre and Sidon was in fact an “advance” into a territory that will one day be transformed by the message of the gospel. The disciples will not forget this miracle and Jesus’s declaration about the woman’s great faith when they are commissioned to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Where are the Tyre and Sidon of our lives? Do we go through regions or seasons where we never expect to encounter a person of faith? It could be in our family, in our workplace, at the mall. We need to be open to the movement of the Spirit directing our lives in these times. Persons of “great faith”—often growing from great need—are waiting to be revealed.

Oratio

Christians in the Eastern churches are familiar with the Jesus Prayer. This meditative practice encourages the repetition of a phrase much like that spoken by the woman in our reading. Repeating this prayer encourages the believer to focus mind and heart on this great gospel truth: that our Lord does indeed have mercy. Repeat this prayer as often as you are reminded to do so in preparation for the Sunday Liturgy. This is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Contemplatio

Persistence pays, even in prayer. Especially in prayer. As an unprotected woman, the Canaanite risked social stigma and shame by approaching and addressing Jesus in public—persistently and with great fervor. She would not be silenced, and she gained both Jesus’s attention and his praise. Her persistence was honored by the Lord. She was advocating for her daughter and her daughter was healed. Jesus teaches that we need to pray and not lose heart. He crafted the parable of the persistent widow to teach this lesson to other crowds (Luke 18:1–8). We can learn a great deal from the widow in the parable—and the Canaanite woman in our Gospel reading.
Kevin Saunders is a Catholic Bible teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. He became particularly interested in the cultural world of Jesus while living in the Old City of Jerusalem. His popular Bible class can be found online at ArizonaBibleClass.com.

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Lectio Divina is a weekly framework for a faithful and respectful reading of the Bible, coordinated with the Catholic lectionary calendar.

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