Matthew 15 : 21 – 28
This Gospel account involving the Canaanite woman is similar to the story earlier in Matthew of the Centurion. In both of these accounts you have a Gentile approach Jesus asking him to heal someone. For the Canaanite woman it was her daughter, and for the centurion his servant. In both cases Jesus reaches beyond the mission which his followers assumed was to the lost sheep of Israel, and honors the faith of the Gentile. Taking the message of Jesus to the Gentiles was a mission that the Apostles and early Christians struggled with and oftentimes resisted. How did the Apostles finally follow the example of Jesus and break out of their narrow vision into the broader vision of Christ’s mission?
First is openness to the power of the Holy Spirit. As the early Christians struggled with change they felt the promptings of the Spirit moving them to change. Peter seemed to see this but struggled with the pressure put on him from his culture and by others with how to act towards the Gentiles. Meanwhile, in our second reading from Romans, St. Paul identified himself as the apostle of the Gentiles. He was out in Gentile countries boldly preaching the Gospel. He thought he was acting in the Spirit, but he was aware of the conflicts with the other Apostles.
The second example we have from the early church is the importance and necessity of discernment.
In the Acts of the Apostles we hear the accounts of how Peter and the others wrestled with how to take the message to the gentiles. It seemed that the Spirit was calling them to change course. Paul travels to Jerusalem to meet with Peter to discuss this. This meeting is oftentimes referred to as the first Church Council. Paul might not have agreed with Peter’s initial stance, but he respected his authority and trusted in his discernment. Peter has a dream in which he sees as God revealing to him His plan. This means that Peter must change his view somewhat. Ultimately he discerned the Spirit and made a bold decision regarding the reception of Gentiles. With a balance of authority and humility he tells Paul of his decision and gives him some direction on how to continue his ministry.
The third example is that of having a boldness on what the spirit revealed and the Church confirmed into action. Peter confidently stands up to those who disagree with his decision because he trusts in the power of the Spirit present in the revelation he had. He was able to announce the drastic change of approach to the Gentiles that he made and withstand criticism and disagreement. Peter is the Rock and he is solid in boldly proclaiming God’s plan.
The Gospel of the Canaanite women is a lesson to us that we must be attentive to the Spirit speaking to us, discerning the Spirit, and draw upon the boldness and courage of the Spirit to act. We learn from the example the early church gives us that discerning the spirit is not a totally personal act. It is a process that involves council and direction from mature members of the community, and ultimately trusting in the direction given to us by our leaders. This discernment is both liberating and humbling. It liberates us from being overly comfortable in living our faith, and humbles us to trust in the authority of others before we act. Sometimes the Spirit calls us to make major changes in our lives, and without prayer for the grace and courage to do so we can easily fall short.
Fr. Killian Loch, O.S.B.