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Let Jesus be Himself

Jesus is really good at attracting people to Himself.

He knows exactly how to reach each person’s heart, how to captivate both men and women, old and young alike, how to draw souls into his influence and lead them to become fully committed, life-long disciples.

He is, as Pope St. Paul VI once put it, the “first and greatest evangelizer.”

But if that’s truly the case — then we may wonder: What on earth is going on in our Gospel this Sunday? In the story we just heard, Jesus seems to be intentionally pushing this poor Canaanite woman away — Rather than attracting her to Himself and leading her deeper into the fold, he appears at first to be…repelling her! Even deliberately discouraging her from coming any closer to him!

We first hear her cry out: “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon!”

And to our astonishment, Jesus… just ignores her.

Still, she continues to implore him, to the point that Jesus’ disciples start to complain: “She keeps calling out after us, Jesus! Send her away!”

At this, the Lord even seems to build a barrier between himself and the woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

This woman is an outsider — She’s not Jewish! And Jesus emphasizes this disparity. Even so, she persists, this time, bowing down before him: “Lord, help me.” 

Jesus responds with what looks like a cold shoulder at best — an insult at worst! “It is not right to take the food of the children,” he says, “and throw it to the dogs.”

Even at this, she absolutely refuses to quit: “Please, Lord,” she says, “for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” 

Only at these words, do the walls come crumbling down, and Christ now replies to her directly, with one of the warmest, most dignified, most positive Divine responses to a human being ever recorded in Sacred Scripture: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

My question for this woman is: Why did she stick it out? Why didn’t she just run away in tears when Jesus seemed to reject her at first? Wasn’t this exactly the opposite of everything we think we know about “good evangelization?” Shouldn’t we be welcoming? Shouldn’t we be friendly! Shouldn’t we roll out the red carpet!

This is all true, in a sense — But perhaps we can unpack this story to get to something even deeper.

Usually when we hear the word “evangelization,” we think of marketing techniques. We ask: “How can we brand the Gospel so as to get people’s attention?” So we work out ways we can make the Gospel as easy to swallow as possible for as many people as possible. In a word, we believe it’s up to us to present the Truth of Jesus Christ in the least offensive manner possible. We think THAT’S the way people will be inspired to follow Christ: if we can only show them it’s not so weird… not so hard… not so counter-cultural after all.

The Gospel thus becomes something to package and sell — a product to move off the shelves. It’s something we need to work hard in order to persuade people to buy. But notice what lurks behind this assumption! — Namely, the mistaken notion that the Gospel isn’t all that attractive in the first place! That it needs some fine-tuning before the ordinary person on the street can even be interested in it.

This is a huge lie. And the encounter with the Canaanite woman proves that it’s simply not the case. What do we learn from Christ’s interaction with this woman?

Simply put: That the Person of Jesus is objectively, even irresistibly attractive. He did not need to bend over backwards to win her attention or her admiration. He did not need to soften his message or make it easier for her to swallow. He simply needed to be — Himself. And his holiness pulsated and overflowed such that she was held there in awe.

She recognized that He was God, come in the flesh. She recognized that He was King of her heart. That he had an absolute claim on her soul — on reality itself.

And so, given all this, she was willing to be denied, rejected — even pushed away to a certain extent — because Jesus’ presence was so deeply alluring, so clearly convincing, so terribly interesting.

In a way, you might even say Jesus was playing “hard to get,” and this filled the woman with an even greater curiosity and faith to seek what He clearly had to offer.

We’ve all had this experience before, haven’t we? We want what we cannot have. It’s part of the human DNA: If something is too easy to get, then maybe it’s not worth getting! Nothing turns us off more than a desperate salesman who is trying way too hard. We get suspicious: Does this guy even believe in what he’s offering?

Jesus is infinitely interesting. And while the grace He offers is totally free — it certainly isn’t cheap. It demands something of each one of us. It requires the test of love.

I wonder sometimes if one of the big reasons why people today don’t seem very interested in following Christ — in believing in God — is that we Christians are trying too hard. We exert so much of our effort in making the Gospel easier to believe — that we end up making it not worth believing!

We turn Jesus into a generally nice guy — a decent spiritual teacher that, if you happen to get around to it, you should consider looking into… maybe. In so doing, we make Him into a soft, easy, lame god that (quite rightly) nobody bothers to follow.

The real Jesus, on the other hand, the Jesus depicted in the gospels — is wild and untamed. He is unpredictable like the wind. He’s breathlessly alive. He promises eternity and demands total allegiance. He says unless you eat his flesh and drink his blood, you have no life within you. He speaks of the narrow, hard, crucified way that leads up to Heaven — He points out the broad, well-paved path that leads down to Hell. He harnesses the winds and waves, and effortlessly casts out demons. 

He eats meals with outcasts. He speaks truth to those in power. He commands the dead to rise. He boldly names our sins. He boldly forgives them as well. He is our intimate friend. He is our intimate God, walking among us.

That is who the Canaanite woman approaches today in our Gospel: the real, living, terrifyingly beautiful Jesus. It takes humility and guts to approach such a Jesus, but it’s well worth it.

The Church’s mission is to share the truth about this Jesus with the entire world, starting with our families, our friends, and our coworkers. As we carry out this mission, it would do us well to simply let Jesus be Himself — His true, shocking, attractive self. He is the first and greatest evangelizer, and though his methods often defy our worldly expectations — they work. They actually reach people’s hearts and call them to conversion.

We don’t need to smooth out the sharp edges of our Gospel proclamation in order to win hearts. In fact, just the opposite. Let Christ be Christ and let the Church be the Church! If we do that, following the Holy Spirit’s lead — we can trust that our Risen Lord will gather all people to Himself.

By Fr. Anthony Ferguson

Fr. Anthony Ferguson is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. He is currently assigned at St. Andrew's Catholic Church in Roanoke, VA.

One reply on “Let Jesus be Himself”

Hey, Fr Anthony, Fr Ferguson…
Listening to FORMED Lectio series on Mary. The first session is the Mary: the New Eve.
The presenter makes a point of emphasizing the word ‘woman’…how Eve is only called by her proper noun once, ‘woman’ the rest. Mary is called woman at Cana and at the cross. She belongs to every person. Similarly the Canaanite woman represents the potential of every woman (person) who persists…just like many of us are the ‘rich young man’, who turn away because it is too hard.

Really liked your thoughts. Thank you.

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