Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana
August 14, 2011
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Matthew 15:28
In the Gospel today we meet the Canaanite woman. Her daughter is possessed, and she wants Jesus to heal her. We must recall the circumstances of Jesus’ day, that the Canaanites were Gentiles and ancient Biblical enemies of the Jews. So, harsh as it may sound to our ears, it is not surprising that Jesus answers, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). The Canaanite woman, however, is persistent, and she is not only tenacious but also clever. “Please, Lord,” she responds, “for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” (Matthew 15:27). Our Lord, recognizing her great faith, grants the request. But is there more? Let us reflect for a moment on prayer of petition.
Jesus Christ sets the standard for prayer of petition when in the Sermon on the Mount He says, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). If that is the case, some will say, then why ask? I think this is a wrongheaded approach. Later in that same Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will teach, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). The value in prayer of petition lies in the fact that this kind of prayer exhibits faith. A child does not ask his parent for a favor because he thinks the parent will refuse him. He asks because he is confident that the parent will be inclined to grant the request. In all her persistence and cleverness, the Canaanite woman demonstrates her faith not only that Jesus can heal her daughter but also that Jesus will heal her daughter. This is the idea, that the healing of her daughter is in fact the will of God. Through her perseverance and skillful answers, the Canaanite woman demonstrates her “great” faith.
This should be a consolation to us. Catholic prayer is filled with petition. The most notable example in our liturgy is what we call the Prayer of the Faithful or General Intercessions. These intercessory prayers come immediately after the recitation of the Creed in a Sunday Mass. We have acknowledged our sins in the Penitential Rite, professed our faith in the Creed, and now we lay before Almighty God our needs. We approach with pure and believing hearts the loving Father who provides for everything. Catholic prayer is filled with many other examples.
I recall when my parents died and the inevitable duty of dividing their possessions took place. For both of them, their prayer books and missals were constant companions. Inside those books were inserted numerous novenas and holy cards, all with prayers to the Sacred Heart, the Infant of Prague, the Blessed Mother, and various saints. God can only know what petitions accompanied the recitation of these prayers. Through these prayers of petition, they had nurtured and developed a personal relationship with God. These novenas and prayers had given expression to their weakness, their dependence on God, and their faith. They were part of what we call in Catholicism the devotional life, and they reflected the same persistent faith and confidence in God’s will that the Canaanite woman demonstrated.
I would wish to say one more thing about prayer of petition. Often I have heard people say, “I prayed and prayed, but God did not answer my prayer.” We must acknowledge that often God does not answer prayer the way we want Him to answer prayer. However, prayer with faith, even “the size of a mustard seed,” is answered. We must not think that if the turnout was contrary to what we wanted, that in some way God did not in fact answer the prayer. Even in the most desperate of circumstances, God can work out some good that was not a part of our petition. Perhaps the unmentioned good should have been in our prayer, but even if it wasn’t, all of what occurs, including our humble petition, is part of a plan and a Divine will that we cannot possibly fully comprehend.
In recent reading (Prayer and the Will of God by Dom Hubert van Zeller), I came across an interesting observation that those of us who wear bifocal glasses can easily appreciate. Our view of the will of God, it said, possesses a bifocal quality. We often think we see the will of God more clearly at a distance than we do at close range. There is a farsighted and nearsighted quality to grasping God’s will. When something happens at a distance, in the world at large, we easily conclude that God acted in such-and-such a way for such-and-such a reason. When something happens closer to home, we complain that God’s will is obscure and incomprehensible.
In the final analysis, the Canaanite woman teaches us an important lesson in the Gospel. Would that we could see with her vision the will of God as clearly—to understand that Jesus’ initial denial of her request was actually an invitation to deeper faith, to know that God must love her daughter as His child, to grasp with faith “the size of a mustard seed” that with God all things are possible even for a Canaanite.