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 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 bringing her into the fold, he appears (at first anyways) 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 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 doesn’t downplay that fact. For some reason, he emphasizes it. It may sound… to our modern ears anyways… as if Jesus is annoyed by her. Even so, she does NOT back down… and instead, she drops to her knees, saying:
“Lord, help me.”
And Jesus’s heart bursts…and he rushes to her, gives her a big hug, and makes her feel all warm and fuzzy….
RIGHT???????? Isn’t that what he’s SUPPOSED to do???????
Well, that’s not actually what he does here.
Instead, 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 and throw it to the dogs.”
Even after this, the woman 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 replies to her directly, with one of the warmest, most dignified, most positive Divine responses to a human being ever recorded in all of Sacred Scripture: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Some scripture scholars think that the word “woman” here is a veiled reference to Eve and even our Blessed Mother, Mary, who is the new Eve, the new Woman!
But 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? I think if I was in her shoes, I would have thought to myself: “Oh no… now I’m bothering him…I’m making him mad. I don’t want him to be annoyed with me anymore…I better stop asking…”
Do you ever feel that way in prayer?
If so, I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page…Jesus was NOT annoyed with this woman in the Gospel! And guess what? He is NEVER annoyed with you! Can we just declare that truth together?
JESUS IS NEVER ANNOYED WITH ME.
Beautiful. That is so freeing!
But back to our original question… If Jesus is the expert evangelist — if he is better than anyone else at attracting people to Himself, then WHAT was going on here in this episode?
If you read books on Evangelization, what Jesus does is sort of the opposite of what everyone recommends.
Shouldn’t we be welcoming? Shouldn’t we be friendly?? Shouldn’t we roll out the red carpet for newcomers, for outsiders?
Certainly we should!
But let’s 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 best position the Gospel so as to get people’s positive attention?” How can we can make the Gospel as easy to swallow as possible?
In a word, we sort of 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 somehow show everyone that our faith is 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!
What we’re really saying is this: That Jesus isn’t all that attractive on his own.
That the Gospel needs some fine-tuning before the ordinary person on the street can even be remotely interested in it.
THIS IS A LIE!
Look at Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman in this weekend’s gospel:
There we can see that the Person of Jesus is objectively attractive, beautiful, good, holy, and desirable… even when he is being sort of challenging.
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 in awe of Him! 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… she was willing to risk it all… she was willing to risk even being pushed away or rejected — because Jesus’ presence was so deeply alluring… so terribly interesting!
In a certain way, you could 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. It sort of egged her on, we might say.
This is a common human experience, isn’t it?
We want what we can’t have!
If something is too easy to get, then we start to wonder… What’s the catch? Maybe this is too good to be true!
Nothing turns us off more than a desperate salesman who is trying way too hard. We get suspicious, don’t we? “What’s this guy trying to pull on me,” we wonder. “What’s in it for him?”
Thankfully…Jesus is NOT a desperate salesman.
He is secure. He knows what He is about. He’s not trying to impress anyone. The grace He offers is totally free and readily available, yes — but his grace 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 reasons why some people today don’t seem very interested in following Christ — in believing in God — is that we Christians have been trying way too hard.
We’re sort of like desperate salesmen… and in order to try attracting people to the Truth, we make Jesus nice, soft, sentimental, and “easier to believe.”
Who would die for that? Would that version of the Gospel inspire a generation of martyrs?
I don’t think so.
The real Jesus, on the other hand, the Jesus depicted in the gospels — is worth dying for. He 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 social outcasts. He speaks the hard truth when nobody wants to hear it. He boldly names our sins. And boldly forgives them as well! He is our intimate friend. He is our intimate God, walking among us. We belong to Him. And He to us.
That is who the Canaanite woman approaches today in our Gospel: the real, living, terribly beautiful, terribly attractive Jesus.
The Church’s job is to provide opportunities for everyone and anyone to encounter the real Jesus.
We let Jesus be Himself.
He is the first and greatest evangelizer, and though his methods often defy our worldly expectations — they do work. They actually reach hearts and call us to true conversion!
It turns out that we don’t need to smooth out the sharp edges of our Gospel proclamation in order to win hearts.
We just need to 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. He will inspire belief and boldness in countless new believers, and and at the end of our lives, he will look upon all of us as he did the Canaanite woman saying:
“Oh! My son! Oh! My daughter!! Great is your faith!!!”