Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Edward V. Hattrick, O.S.A.
1929 – 2007

Is 56: 1, 6-7
Ps 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8
Rom 11: 13-15, 29-32
Mt 15: 21-28

A Japanese parishioner of mine went on a tour of the Holy Land. His pilgrimage took him to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where he was gazing with admiration at the people praying there so devoutly. Overcoming his shyness, my friend approached a man and asked politely if he came here often to pray before the holy stones. “I sure do,” replied the man. “I pray here two or three times a week, just like my father and grandfather before me.” “And what do you pray for?” asked my friend humbly. “Peace for Israel, peace for all the world,” replied the man. “Thank you so much,” said my friend. Then just as he was about to leave he turned back and said, “May I ask you one more question?” “Of course,” said the man, “go ahead and ask.” “Do your prayers before these holy stones get answered?” “No,” said the man, “between you and me, it’s like talking to a brick wall!”

We have just heard the gospel story of a pagan lady who asked Jesus to free her daughter, but our Lord didn’t even bother to answer her. Then the disciples asked Jesus to give her what she wanted, because she kept pestering them. This time Jesus refused outright, saying he had been sent “only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (They were in southern Lebanon at the time, and this lady was a foreigner, a Canaanite.) Finally she ran up and knelt before him, begging for help. This time he was positively curt, or so it strikes us, telling her it wasn’t fair to take children’s food and throw it to the house dogs. This lady was praying to a brick wall.

Most of us at one time or another have had similar experiences. We pray for something extremely important to us, such as the recovery of a loved one, but nothing happens, no reply at all. We turn to the saints asking their intercession, as the lady went through the apostles, but that doesn’t work, either. Finally we beg our Lord again, but the answer is still no. Many a Catholic, I think, can relate to this situation. Some even quit coming to church; others continue to come, but there’s a lingering resentment against an apparently heartless God, and a loss of confidence in prayer.

But remember that in the end the mother got precisely what she wanted: Her daughter was set free. We know why Jesus was finally persuaded to change his mind. It’s in the punch-line of the story: “Woman, you have great faith. Your wish is granted.” We’re talking, then, about faith, and about how faith persuades Jesus to change his mind, how it makes him say yes after he’s already said no.

Why do some folks have a strong faith and others not? Faith is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. The less you exercise, the flabbier it becomes. How do we exercise it? By joining the Canaanite Health Club. The Canaanite woman had one basic exercise: She had a tremendous love for her daughter. “Have pity on me by helping my daughter.” This was her prayer. This Canaanite woman is one of the greatest teachers you’ll ever have. She teaches us two things:

One, that without faithful prayer, we will get nowhere.

Two, that without love for others, those prayers will be like talking to a brick wall.

To pray without love is like swimming without water, like running without a road. We are making the motions to get somewhere, but it just doesn’t work. The same is true of faith without love: It is thoroughly lifeless. So our first prayer must always be that the Lord increase our faith by making us more loving. There are many things we ask for and do not receive from the Lord, but the prayer for faith-filled love is always answered “yes.” And with that gift, not only do we always have something to offer the sick and the suffering, the lost and the lonely; we also have more of the one thing that, when all is said and done, we need the most: We have greater trust in, and greater love for, Jesus Christ.