Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 67:2-3, 5-6, 8
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 15:21-28
Each summer the teachers at Saint Ignatius are assigned a topical book to read and ponder in preparation for our opening meetings in August, and as a way of fostering professional growth and introducing new ideas. Some faculty doyens also see it as a diabolical quid pro quo for the assigning of summer reading to the students.
This past summer we read Whistling Vivaldi by social psychologist and provost of Columbia University Claude M. Steele. His premise is that all of us bring presuppositions to our interactions with others and that the context of those interactions causes certain presuppositions to come to the forefront. For example, a white male Stanford student will feel differently about being in a calculus class than he would feel about being the only white student in an African American Studies class.
This realization should make us aware of how certain situations, just by their nature, cause anxiety and difficulty for our students. The proximate goal is to find ways to neutralize those anxieties and difficulties so that each of our young men can achieve the full potential; whereas the ultimate goal would be to root out the causes of the anxieties and difficulties so that every student enters each class – and every situation in life – without the baggage, or what Steele calls “identity threat,” that hinders her or his ability to be a person fully alive.
With this book on my mental front-burner I was immediately drawn to the plight of the Canaanite woman in this weekend’s Gospel story from St. Matthew. What must it have taken for a Canaanite woman to speak with Jewish men – especially with THAT Jewish man? I think the proper word to use here is chutzpah – a wonderful Yiddish term meaning ‘guts’ or ‘nerve.’ Indeed, the Apostles see it as such and ask Jesus to send her away.
Jesus does not accede to the wishes of His followers, but instead He engages the woman in conversation – but not the kind of conversation expected from the all-loving Messiah: "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs." What??? Is He really comparing this woman to a dog? Well, in truth, He is actually showing a great deal of insight and humility although it looks to be the exact opposite.
Given a closer look, His seemingly derogatory comment is really an opening for the Canaanite woman to assert herself and to show an impressive amount of chutzpah: “"Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters." Imagine the looks on the Apostles’ faces at that come-back. Instead of turning away and leaving Jesus alone as the Apostles desired, she did what Jesus tells all of us to do in our prayer – she was persistent and refused to take ‘no’ for an answer.
In His love for her, Jesus afforded the Canaanite woman the ability to show her mettle and her wit by using His imagery to her advantage. His insight into her verbal talents gave her the opportunity to stand up for herself and His humility allowed her to upstage Him and be the star of the scene.
Early on in Whistling Vivaldi Dr. Steele tells the story of the turnaround of the 1978 Seattle Supersonics once they fired Bob Hopkins and hired legendary coach Lenny Wilkens. Without any change in player personnel, those losers who started the season at 5-17 ended up in the NBA finals. It seems that the new coach had the ability to bring out the best in the same players who had earlier been derided as bums.
The Canaanite woman, labeled as worse than a bum, became a star under the care of Jesus. She responded to Him as if to a coach who – knowing exactly what button He was pushing – said, “I don’t know if you have it in you.” She definitely had it in her, and she stands as a shining example of how to make an impression on the Coach. All it takes is persistence – along with a pretty healthy serving of chutzpah.