A faith that can weather the storms

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20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: August 14, 2011
Isa 56:1, 6-7; Ps 67; Rom 11:13-15, 29-32; Matt 15:21-28

When you pray, do you ever get met by—silence? No answer comes to your question; no response to your petition. And it’s not that God isn’t answering anyone; in fact, maybe you see others around you being answered. But not you. Why not? Maybe you begin to feel that God just doesn’t like you very much; that he likes other people much better than you!

If you have ever experienced that, then today’s Gospel passage can speak to you. Because that might be how the Canaanite woman felt when she asked Jesus to heal her daughter; and in response he rebuffed her three times! First by ignoring her request; then by verbally excluding her and her people; then even insulting them by calling them dogs! Or so it seemed.

Much like the experience of the Lord seeming distant or not answering prayer—this reading is one of those Gospel passages that puzzles people and troubles them. How could he respond this way? Isn’t he all-loving, with the divine love that fills his Sacred Heart? Wasn’t he sent as “a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6, 49:6; Luke 2:32)? Didn’t he come to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10)? What then is he doing—in this passage and in those moments in our lives?

Now there are some explanations that we might think of that we can rule out, since we know that he was “like us in all things but sin.” (Council of Chalcedon) Thus we can be sure that he wasn’t trying to hurt this woman; that he didn’t hate women; that he wasn’t prejudiced against her and her people.

So what was he doing? In this passage, Christ’s words and actions have everything to do with faith: on the one hand, showing his disciples and us what faith is like; on the other, training and building up the faith of this woman.

But how could this have to do with faith? First, we have to remember that true faith is not some sort of blind optimism. It is not a belief that everything will just turn out all right, or that what we want to happen will surely happen. It is not at all like wishing upon a star.

As the Second Vatican Council told us, faith is fundamentally a receptiveness and responsiveness to God’s revelation of himself and his will. Faith is focused upon Jesus Christ as its object: we learn who he is, how limitless his power is, and his love, for us personally; we learn what he gives us and what he how he wants us to live our lives; and we respond.

Well, that sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? After all, God is always the one who takes the initiative in revealing himself and reaching out to us. If what we do is receive and respond, then that’s pretty easy, right? But it isn’t. Because often there’s nothing harder than learning how to receive. We are so ready to put up barriers, or to want to depend upon ourselves.

And sometimes it’s hard, when we experience difficulties in the present moment, to continue to hold onto what we already know in faith—to continue to trust confidently in our Lord’s power and love for us. Weak faith falters when it experiences storms; while strong faith perseveres. This is something that Christ’s apostles needed to learn—and so do we.

And so, these recent chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, Christ has been setting up some unusual situations in order to teach some lessons. Last week, we heard about when he walked on water—and drew St. Peter to ask to walk on water too. And Peter did walk on the water, for a short time, while he kept his eyes on Jesus and depended on him. But once he looked at the strong wind instead, he faltered and began to sink. One rebuff—one—was all it took to knock down Peter’s faith, to turn him away from Christ. And so Christ appropriately said: “O you of little faith…”

What a great contrast, then, when, not so many days later, Jesus and the disciples encountered this Canaanite woman. Of course, he wanted to show them how Gentiles, non-Jews, like her would respond when they carried out his great commission to bring the Gospel to all nations. But he also wanted to show them someone whose faith did not falter even when she received not one but three rebuffs—and these were rebuffs from Jesus himself. And he says to her, “O woman, great is your faith!”—surely with an eye toward the disciples to say: This is what great faith looks like!

But what of the woman? Jesus wasn’t just using her as a teaching example. He was doing something for her too: he was strengthening her faith. By rebuffing her three times, he was providing the resistance that she needed to make her great faith stronger and purer. Somehow—we don’t know how—she already knew of his great power, and his great love. And surely this was tested as he seemed to reject her, with silence and with harsh words. But she had to make a choice of the will: that he did love her and her daughter, even when his words seemed to contradict that. No matter the storms; no matter the source of the storms; in her faith she held tightly to her certainty in his love. Her great faith was strengthened by his rebuffs; and that was the greatest gift he could give her.

For we have been created in the image and likeness of God; and in baptism we have been adopted as his sons and daughters. We are made to know, love, and serve him; and we will never be fulfilled as human beings until we live in this wide-open relationship with God that faith truly is. It is so easy to run away, or be knocked down by storms. It is so easy to put up resistance, barriers, distance, or demands. And so there is no greater gift that Christ can give us than to get us to pull down our barriers, our defenses, our chains—and make us able to receive him, for whom we have been longing for so long—even in the midst of discouragement and storms.

  • Brothers and sisters, if you have experienced storms that have discouraged you, please take note of the example of this woman; and renew your prayer. Be persistent; trust in the love of our Lord Jesus.
  • And if you have any barriers or resistance between you and the Lord, please, pull them down. Open yourself to his grace. Sometimes these come in the form of the heavy chains of serious sins that you have never brought to sacramental confession, that weigh you down and deaden the divine life within you. If that describes you, please, bring the dead chains of your sins to confession, and let our Lord free you from them at last.

There is a current song that you might hear on Christian radio stations that concludes with these words:

What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst
This world can’t satisfy?
And what if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are Your mercies in disguise?

(“Blessings,” by Laura Story)

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