Have you ever been called a “dog”? That is what happens to the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel and, admittedly, the first time I read the passage, it came as a pretty big shock. This is not the sort of language we normally associate with Jesus. In modern terms, it comes dangerously close to calling her the “b-word” (which is, after all, the technical term for a female dog). And yet, by the end of the encounter they had, he is calling her a “woman of great faith” and granting her wish that he heal her daughter. Stated simply, the unnamed Canaanite woman—a foreigner, an alien—becomes one of only two women in scripture who manage to change Jesus’s mind. [The other, of course, is Mary during the wedding feast at Cana, but what nice Jewish boy is able to say no to his own mother?]
This anonymous seeker has a lot to teach us—ALL of us. How many of us find ourselves pleading with civil and ecclesial authorities, who tell us—as Jesus’s companions say here—to “shut up and go away,” because she (we!) keep shouting after them. [Actually, at that point, she’s spoken only once.] But as we might say about her today, “nevertheless, she persisted.” She truly is being “dogged,” isn’t she? So maybe Jesus’s epithet is not that problematic after all. And maybe we need to persist, as well.
Also, let’s not forget that the Canaanite woman is petitioning not for herself, but for her daughter. If today’s prelates are, according to Catholic teaching, the descendants of those disciples accompanying Jesus, are we not the daughters of the one for whom she is asking to be made rid of a demon? Does this mean that, if she’s told that “her wish will come to pass,” then we, too, are going to be rid of the demons that plague us?
The Gospel of Matthew is largely directed to the Jewish people, and historians tell us that the Canaanites were their traditional enemies. [When Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, it was against the Canaanites, after all.] This is probably part of the reason that Jesus initially rejects the woman who calls out to him—though why he is in Tyre and Sidon, a region where there were no Jews, is never made clear. So when he eventually does respond to her plea, calls her faithful and promises to heal her daughter, he is opening up the promise of the Good News beyond the nation of Israel. And that, in turn is a fulfillment of the prophecy in today’s first reading, from Isaiah: “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord… will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL peoples.” As the response to today’s psalm proclaims: “Let ALL the nations praise you!” Paul, too, in his letter to the Romans, speaks to the gentiles and declares: that “God might have mercy upon ALL.”
ALL peoples. While this can be understood as referring to ethnic groups—to “gentiles”—there is nothing to suggest that it can’t be understood in other ways, too. God’s house is open to women, to the LGBTQ+ community, to the poor, to the stranger, to those of different abilities, and to so many more. Even to tax collectors, which Matthew was (and so he, too, like the Canaanite woman, was something of an outsider). Perhaps Pope Francis’s decision to invite women and other laypeople to participate in the upcoming Synod on Synodality is a step in the “all people” direction?
The words that the woman uses in addressing Jesus, “have pity on me,” can also translated as “have MERCY on me.” These are words we use in every Mass: kyrie eleison. At that moment, we are petitioning God in the same way that the Canaanite woman called out to Jesus. So, although we do not know her name, we commemorate her each time we gather. Her plea is our plea. She is our foremother and we express her petition in the same way she makes it: in hope and even expectation that God will respond. We do this, even when we are told by the successors to those who told her to “shut up and go away” that we ought to do the same.
Maybe it’s not surprising that this gospel reading is buried in the “dog” days of summer, because it truly is revolutionary. It resonates especially with me because I’m a woman, but it has much to say to all of us who feel like we don’t fit into a box, and who sometimes feel tormented by a demon, like the daughter in need of healing. In other words, it speaks to us all. And so it calls us all to be dogged, persistent—and, like the Canaanite woman, “of great faith.”
Margaret Susan Thompson
Margaret Susan Thompson
Margaret Susan (Peggy) Thompson is a professor of History and Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the Campbell Public Affairs Institute, and holds courtesy appointments in the Departments of Religion and Women & Gender Studies.
Prof. Thompson was trained as a political historian, with a focus on the nineteenth-century United States and, particularly, the Congress. Her first book, The “Spider Web”: Congress and Lobbying in the Age of Grant (Cornell University Press), reflects both her scholarly and hands-on experience, the latter as American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow. Recently, Professor Thompson’s work has focused on the history of American Catholic nuns. She has written and lectured extensively on the subject, and has an 18-lecture audio series available through Learn25.com. Her research is from an explicitly feminist perspective, emphasizing the agency and social significance of sisters to American religious and secular history. As a result of this research, she has had the privilege of speaking internationally as well as across the U.S., and has served as a consultant to numerous documentarians and religious communities. Her most recent publication is “Sacraments as Weapons: Patriarchal Coercion and Engendered Power in the 19th-Century Convent” (Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Fall 2022), and she has presented in the FutureChurch Women Erased series. Her forthcoming book, The Yoke of Grace: American Nuns and Social Change, 1809-1917, is under contract with Oxford University Press.
Prof. Thompson is also grateful to be part of the preaching rotation in her parish: St. Lucy’s in Syracuse, New York.