Today’s readings are challenging ones for us. They’re certainly a little difficult to understand, especially the Gospel story. But I think it’s the Gospel story that presents the key to our understanding today by revealing the Canaanite woman’s faith. This is what I think Jesus wants us to reflect on in today’s Liturgy of the Word.
As we have been reading from Matthew’s Gospel this year, we have seen various levels of faith: “lacking faith” as seen in the Jewish community, most particularly in the Pharisees and Sadducees, “little faith” as seen in the disciples, and particularly in the Twelve, and “great faith” as seen in surprising places, like in the Canaanite woman today. We’re all on different places in our faith life, and I think today’s Scriptures give us time for a quick summer check-up to see where we are in that spectrum.
Throughout our Gospel readings this past year, Jesus has run up against the religious leaders and even some of the Jewish people, those he was sent to save first, and found them frustratingly lacking in faith. They have heard him preach and seen his mighty deeds just like everyone else, but could not reconcile it with what they believed, so they refused to believe in him. They thought his words were scandalous and his wondrous deeds were black magic. It’s not so much that they didn’t recognize the miracles, they just refused to believe he was doing it by the same faith they thought they had.
We have also seen Peter’s faith on display. He is kind of the spokesman for the rest of the disciples, often putting into words what they may have been too timid to express. In last weekend’s Gospel, Peter was able to walk on the water when he had his eyes fixed on Jesus, but began to sink when he looked at the storm-tossed waves. Jesus pulled him out of the waves, saying “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” The disciples are those men of little faith, who were with him all the time, but often missing the point. And Jesus sometimes seems to be frustrated with their little faith and slow understanding.
In today’s Gospel, though, we have “great faith,” and from a surprising source. The woman is a Canaanite, a member of the race of people who lived in the Promised Land until God gave it over to the Jews. She is an outsider, who risked her life to cross into enemy territory. But she knows enough to give her daughter’s situation to Jesus. And she is persistent enough to keep asking even though she is initially rebuffed. The disciples find her so irritating, they want Jesus to send her away. But he recognizes in her what he has been thirsting to find all along: great faith. And with that great faith, she was able to return to her daughter, freed from the demon, healed from the inside out.
So we have been able to see in Matthew’s Gospel over these past months, the range of faith. From the lack of faith of the Jews and religious leaders of the time, to the little, almost fledgling faith of the disciples, to the surprisingly great faith of the Canaanite woman. This begs the question in us, I think, of where we are in the journey of faith. Have we yet to begin, or worse, have we chosen not to begin? Do we hope our mere physical presence at Mass will be good enough? Do we hear the word of God but refuse to let it sink in, to travel from our brain into our hearts? Have we heard the Gospel but been very lax about living it? Do we come to Mass only to leave this holy place and become a very different person in the parking lot, or in our homes, businesses and schools in the week ahead? Do we find ourselves as lacking in faith as the Pharisees and Sadducees?
Or are we tentative in our faith? Are we among those who want to believe, but are afraid to take a leap of faith, afraid to walk on that choppy water? Are we discouraged by what seems to be a lack of response to our prayers? Are we angry with God because of something that happened – or didn’t happen – in the past? Do we think it’s okay to miss Mass because we have other things to do? Have we not gone to confession in a long time because we think our sins are too big, or because we think we don’t really sin that much? Are we hesitant to pray about something because we think it’s too big for God to handle, or too little to bother him about? Have we been looking for excuses to avoid something we know is God’s call in our life? Have we been of “little faith?”
Maybe we have found ourselves in one or the other of those places in the faith journey at different points in our lives. I know I have. But maybe too – I hope – we have found ourselves on more solid, faithful ground. Maybe we have taken a leap of faith and found ourselves blessed beyond our wildest imaginings. Maybe we have answered God’s call and found grace to do the things we never thought we could. Maybe we have given a problem or situation over to God and found out that in God’s time, healing came in unexpected ways. Maybe we have been surprised by our faith from time to time and heard God say, “Great is your faith!”
Like I said, I think many of us are in all these places at different times of our lives. And that’s okay as long as we make a little progress all the time, as long as we eventually find our faith taking us places we never thought we would go. The life of faith is full of surprises, most of them good, some of them challenging or possibly even disheartening. But when we approach it all in faith, all of it will work out for good in God’s own time. When we give our lives to God, when we take the leap we know God is calling us to take, when we get out of our boat, we might just find ourselves walking on water, or feeding thousands, blessing others and sometimes saying just the thing someone else needs to hear. All of this is God working through us, of course, all of it is because we have trusted God in some significant way. In those moments, may we hear what Jesus said to the Canaanite woman: “Great is your faith!”