Sunday, August 14, 2005

Do Not Disturb!

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 14 August, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

Some of my favorite childhood memories come from the many summer vacations our family would take, which would often bring us to one hotel or another. It intrigued me that many of the rooms in those hotels had signs outside the door that said: Do not disturb!

And often—in order to pass the time—my brother, my sister and myself would run up and down the halls, and knock on all the doors that had one of those signs!

Now that I am an adult, I have come to a greater appreciation of the meaning of those words: Do not disturb.

No one likes to be disturbed. So it would seem only natural that Jesus is no different. As we look at the Gospel this morning, it’s easy for us to interpret the story of the Canaanite woman in those terms.

In fact, that’s the way the disciples themselves come to understand the situation. This woman, who is not from among the chosen people, comes to Jesus because her daughter is tormented by a demon. The only response she receives from Jesus is silence. So the disciples quickly jump to the next logical conclusion: Do not disturb. They say to Jesus: Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us (Matthew 15:23).

Now we know that Jesus does not grant their request; in fact, he grants the Canaanite woman’s request instead, but only after a long and somewhat awkward conversation where he even refers to her people as dogs! How are we to understand that?

Many scholars say that Jesus is using humor in order to draw out from her a deeper response of faith. That makes sense, because the woman does not seem offended; she continues to banter with Jesus until finally prayer is answered.

Whichever way we look at it, the point of the story is that this woman, who is not from among the chosen people of Israel, displays a faith which far exceeds even that of the disciples, and anticipates the very reason why Christ came in the first place: to save all peoples, all the nations of the earth.

In the first reading this morning, the Lord announces through the prophet Isaiah:

My salvation is about to come, my justice about to be revealed. The foreigners (that’s us) who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants . . . them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer. —Isaiah 56:6-7

Far from being disturbed by the prayer of the Canaanite woman, Jesus is trying to help her to see more clearly that she is not a dog, not an outsider asking for scraps from God’s table. She is herself a child of God, a fulfillment of that promise from Isaiah, and a welcome member of His house.

St. John Chrysostom says that the Canaanite woman represents each of us, the Church gathered out from the Gentiles, the non-Jewish believers who complete God’s plan of salvation. If that is true, then we should do everything we can to imitate this great woman of faith in our own lives.

But what is our response when God doesn’t seem to be listening to our prayers, when we encounter the silence of God? It didn’t stop the Canaanite woman, and it shouldn’t stop us. She received some very ambiguous answers from Jesus that day, but she never gave up, she never stopped reaching out to Jesus. Because of that—because of her faith—her prayer was answered.

Each of us can ask ourselves this morning: Are we moved by the needs we see in the world around us? Are we willing to intercede for the needs of others, to be persistent in our prayer to God even when we encounter opposition?

If we are honest, we can probably admit that all too often there is a sign on the door of our own lives, and that sign reads: Do not disturb! We want things to change in the world around us, but we are often unwilling to be the ones who work for that change. God comes to us today and knocks on our door, reminding us that we have a responsibility to pray for those He has placed in our lives, and to do at least something to work for their well being.

May we be persistent this day in our prayers and actions, knowing that the God who calls us is a God who wants to be disturbed, and that He expects each of us to be disturbed, as well.