All three readings this week speak of the universality of salvation. Isaiah tells us that God’s house, “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Paul compares his own people to the Gentiles saying, “God delivered all [peoples] to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.” Finally, Jesus tells the Canaanite woman who pleads for her daughter’s cure, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
To understand the exceptional nature of universal salvation it helps to examine the situation and context of the Canaanite woman. First, she is a Canaanite. She has no place in the scheme of salvation because she is not Jewish. Secondly, being a woman, she does not have the rights and privileges of a man. Third, she has not been able to effect a cure for her ailing daughter. She is truly an outcast.
Jesus’ first reaction to her request is resistance. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” You are a foreigner. Your troubles do not concern me. Jesus seems to indicate that non-Jews are excluded from his ministry. He makes this attitude more explicit when he compares all non-Jewish people to dogs, a common designation for Gentiles who did not belong to the chosen people. This is rather shocking for those who have been following the portrayal of Jesus given in the Gospels.
The woman, however, is not put off by his derogatory description of her. Her situation is so desperate that she points out that even the dogs eat the scraps from the table. She will take any insult or denigration if it means that her daughter will experience a cure. So, the woman is not only a foreigner and an outcast; she is also a mother with a sick child. This bond of love truly amazes Jesus, and he grants her request.
The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman gives another and profound insight into the very character of Jesus himself. It is thought that Jesus received his initial mission of redemption at the time of his fast and temptation in the desert. He says in this story that he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. The encounter with this woman seems to force Jesus to realize that his mission is much broader than simply bringing redemption to Israel. The salvation he brings is for all people. Even though he starts his mission in Israel, it will spread to the whole world.
When Jesus cures the woman’s daughter he compliments the woman herself, “O woman, great is your faith.” This seems to be a central point of the story. No longer will people be saved simply because they belong to a certain nation. Rather, anyone who believes will experience the salvation offered through Jesus. Return to Isaiah’s words, “Observe what is right, do what is just: for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed.”
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.