In the Old Testament, God reveals, through the prophets, that His plan of salvation for human beings includes saving, first of all, the people of Israel, and, secondly, the Gentiles. For this reason, the prophets begin preaching this message to Israel and only later offer the same message to the Gentiles. In this sense, in the Old Testament, God reveals His plan in stages; the first stage involves His people, Israel, and the second stage, the Gentiles. This means that His plan of salvation has an ordering. In this ordering, Israel has primacy, as the first receivers or beneficiaries of God’s Word, for they are the people God first chose for Himself. As such, from the people of Israel God would raise up for Himself a son of Israel from the Tribe of Judah, a son of David, who would become the Messiah Savior of Israel. In this Messiah alone would all people be offered salvation, first the people of Israel, and only later the Gentiles.
In this plan of salvation, particularly by establishing Israel as His covenant people on mount Sinai, God Himself becomes the Go’el of Israel, meaning He becomes a family member of Israel, a Godfather, who will redeem them from whatever they suffer. This ministry of the go’el was traditionally practiced by a son of Israel for the redemption of his family members. Here the go’el would redeem his family members from various difficult circumstances, including debt, poverty, threats, captivity, injustice, and the loss of the family’s inheritance of land. In doing so, he would offer a solution for the price of redemption required to free his family members from their circumstances. This was his legal responsibility as the go’el. As such, here God Himself, by becoming a member of the family of Israel, assumes the office of the Go’el by beginning the ministry of redeeming Israel. In God’s plan of salvation, the ministry of the Go’el will begin in Israel, but will also include the Gentiles, particularly those Gentiles prepared to receive this ministry from the Go’el.
In the Old Testament and also in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels and in St. Paul, the inspired authors mention a particular group or class of Gentiles, God-fearers, who professed a belief in the God of the people of Israel. Indeed, they believed in the promises and prophecies that God revealed through the prophets. These God-fearing Gentiles, believers in the faith of Israel, would be prepared to receive the ministry of redemption from the Go’el of Israel. They certainly heard the prophets proclaim God’s plan to save not only the people of Israel, but also the Gentiles. In fact, in today’s first reading, God proclaims this message through the prophet Isaiah. At the same time, only the God-fearing Gentiles would be prepared to receive the redemption from the Go’el of Israel.
In the Gospel today, the inspired author recalls a story about a member of this group or class of God-fearing Gentiles, a Canaanite woman, who professed a belief in the God of Israel, particularly the belief that Israel’s God would raise up a Go’el or Redeemer of Israel from the House of David, a Messiah Savior, who would redeem not only the people of Israel, but also the Gentiles. As a God-fearing Gentile, the Canaanite woman reveals a true faith in the God of Israel in today’s Gospel. As Jesus travels through the region of Tyre and Sidon, this Gentile, a Canaanite woman, approaches Him pleading for Him to save her daughter from a demon. As she continues calling out to Jesus for help, she begins bothering the disciples of Jesus. As a result, they tell Jesus to send her away. After all, in their mind, she is not a daughter of Israel; she is a Gentile. She is, indeed, a Gentile, a God-fearing Gentile, who desires salvation from Jesus, the Go’el of Israel, particularly for her daughter.
All the same, in God’s plan, as recounted in Scripture, the people of Israel, including the Gentiles, could only receive this salvation from the Go’el, the Redeemer, after He tested them for their fidelity and they passed the test as a people of faith. As such, in today’s Gospel, this would certainly be true of the God-fearing Canaanite woman. Jesus, the Go’el of Israel, tests her three times for her fidelity. Only if she passes the test, as a woman of faith, would she receive from the Go’el the salvation she desires for her daughter. The temptation, of course, during the test, especially during a difficult test, is to lose faith, particularly by fleeing from the test or by avoiding the test altogether. In the case of the Canaanite woman, does she respond faithfully to the three tests that she receives from Jesus, the Go’el of Israel?
First of all, after hearing this Canaanite woman repeatedly call out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!”, Jesus tests her by not saying a word to her. He remains silent. Oftentimes in life, Jesus does not offer a word to people as they call out to Him in prayer. The test for them, including the Canaanite woman, is to remain faithful to Him in prayer, to continue praying to Him faithfully, especially during times when He remains silent. Here there may be a temptation for them to stop praying. They may be tempted to lose faith in praying to Him during the silence, but if they remain faithful to Him, He will, eventually, offer them a word in the silence. In the Gospel, the Canaanite woman does not stop calling out to Jesus in prayer during the silence. For this reason, she passes this first test, as a woman of faith.
Secondly, after Jesus finally responds to the Canaanite woman, He reminds her that during this first stage of God’s plan of salvation, He has been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This is the second test. Will she remain faithful in prayer to Jesus, the Go’el of Israel, after hearing from Him that the people of Israel, the people that God first chose for Himself, have primacy in the ordering of God’s plan of salvation, not the Gentiles? Many times people can be tempted to stop praying to Jesus in faith, if they are not God’s first choice. In the Gospel, after the Canaanite woman hears Jesus tell her that the Gentiles do not have primacy in God’s plan, she could have easily stopped calling out to Jesus in prayer, but she does not. On the contrary, she prays to Him in faith, all the more, faithfully pleading to Him, “Lord, help me!” In doing so, she passes the second test, as a woman of faith.
Finally, Jesus tests the Canaanite woman a third and final time in this Gospel reading. In doing so, He tells her that using the food of the children to feed the dogs is not right. The children, of course, refer to God’s children, the people of Israel; and the dogs refer to the Gentiles, particularly to the Canaanite woman and her daughter. Conversely, the food refers to the grace of salvation that the master of the household, the Go’el of Israel, Jesus Christ, will offer to all people at the proper time according to the ordering of God’s plan.
On the one hand, by calling the people of Israel the “children” of God, Jesus is alluding to their status as members of God’s family. As you recall, through the covenant on mount Sinai, the people of Israel became members of the family of God. Indeed, they became His children; and He became their Father, their Go’el, who would redeem them. In becoming the son of man, God the Son, Jesus Christ, would fulfill the office of the Go’el of Israel perfectly for their redemption. In this Gospel reading, He is, once again, reminding the Canaanite woman of the primacy of the people of Israel in God’s plan of salvation, by calling them the children of God. After all, a father has a moral duty, first and foremost, to help his children, before helping others. As a result, as the Go’el of Israel, Jesus, the Son of God, first offers His family, the people of Israel, God’s children, the grace of redemption as food. This is the ordering of God’s plan.
On the other hand, Jesus calls the Gentile Canaanite woman and her daughter “dogs”. What could he mean here? For many people, this term can seem derogatory, but this is certainly not what Jesus intends. During the time of Jesus, as today, people could refer to dogs either as feral and filthy animals, or as domesticated pets, such as puppies. The first group of dogs, the feral and filthy dogs, had no human master or household, but the second group, the domesticated dogs, did have a human master, including a household.
The people, during the time of Jesus, would use these terms for dogs metaphorically. In doing so, they would sometimes use the first term for dogs, meaning feral and filthy animals, to refer to Gentiles derogatorily. In today’s Gospel, Jesus, of course, does not do that. On the contrary, He uses the second term for dogs, domesticated pets or puppies, to refer to Gentiles. In this sense, here He is saying that these domesticated dogs, the Gentiles, have a household, including a master, the Go’el of Israel, who will feed them at the proper time, but only after the children of the household, the children of the master, have received their food from Him. In this sense, for Jesus, the Gentiles would be fed, but not before Israel. For this reason, He initially tells the Canaanite woman that for Him to use the food that belongs, first and foremost, to the children of Israel to feed the Gentiles, prematurely, before the children eat, is not right, for this would not be the proper ordering of salvation for Israel and the Gentiles in God’s plan. As such, for Jesus, the children of Israel eat first in the plan of God, and the Gentiles only after. In the Gospel, after the Canaanite woman hears what Jesus says, she, once again, passes the test, as a woman of faith. According to her, she does not want the food that belongs to the children of Israel, the table food, but only the leftovers that fall from the master’s table, after the children have eaten. Here the Canaanite woman remains faithful to the ordering of God’s plan in her prayer to Jesus. Accordingly, Jesus honors her prayer by healing her daughter.
The question is this: Will you remain faithful to Jesus, the Go’el of Israel, as He tests you, as difficult as those tests may be for you, in God’s plan of salvation? Indeed, will you imitate the faithfulness of the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel reading? Jesus, the Go’el of Israel, certainly desires your fidelity to Him, as a person of faith. Only by remaining faithful to Him in this life will you merit the grace of salvation in the afterlife.
In Christ with Blessed Mary,
Friar Mariano D. Veliz, O.P.