03 August 2011

When a plea for help is met with silence

18th Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory

When we set aside any prurient interest we might have in demonic possession and the theatrics of the Hollywood exorcism, we realize that the battle faced by the daughter of the Canaanite woman is rather ordinary. In one way or another, we are all “tormented by a demon.” The reality of evil and its destruction is in no way mitigated by its everydayness, by its banality. In fact, recognizing the prevalence of evil and its familiarity is an excellent way to recognize and claim the same faith that eventually frees the girl from her tormentor. However, while recognizing the prevalence and familiarity of evil, Catholics often make a fatal mistake. We think of the Devil as extraordinary: somehow outside our normal experience. He's an exotic power; a dark, majestic angel; a fierce, nearly all-powerful foe capable of controlling those inclined to habitual sin and overwhelming the innocent. The truth of the matter is much less dramatic. The Devil is a defeated foe. Has been from Day One. Is now. And always will be. Notice Jesus' reaction when he hears the pleas of the Canaanite mother: “. . .he did not say a word in answer to her.” No alarms. No rushing about with sirens blaring. Just silence and waiting. What is he waiting for? A profession of simple trust in God, a declaration of faith. When he hears the mother make her profession, he says, “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.” And it is. Her daughter is healed.

Of course, this scene from Matthew's gospel isn't about demonic possession; it's about the catholicity of faith, the universal and fundamental human need to trust in God. When the Canaanite woman begs for help, Jesus replies with silence. His disciples are impatient and contemptuous: “Send her away!” Finally, Jesus responds to the woman with the objection everyone expects from a rabbi when speaking to a Gentile: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . .It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Now, the question at this point is: does this unclean woman slink away, properly chastised, or does she profess her faith? Jesus waits. The desperate mother cries out (surprisingly? predictably?) a humble trust in God, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Nothing extraordinary, nothing exotic or weird. Just an ordinary woman laying claim to her faith and expressing a mother's love for her child. That's all it takes to heal her daughter. That's all it takes to show the Devil that he is defeated. 

The genius of our Lord's silent waiting in the face of the mother's pleading lies in his knowledge that the woman is faithful despite her uncleanliness. In other words, her status as a Gentile, the fact that she is “outside the flock” in no way alters that which is basic to us all: an abiding, even nagging, desire to love God and proclaim our trust in His care. It may have taken the demonic possession of her daughter to drive her to give voice to that desire, but when driven to it, she makes a public profession and reaps the harvest of her obedience. What she doesn't do is give the Devil more power than he can actually wield, more influence than he is capable of exerting. Even an unspoken, unrealized faith can dwarf the worst that evil can throw at us. . .so long as we do not succumb to despair, to the temptation to surrender to an already defeated enemy. If your pleas for help are met with silence, profess your faith, lay claim to your trust in God's loving-care, and you will be healed even before help arrives.

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