The Gift of Faith
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

The first thing we need to keep in mind with regard to this reading is that this is the only occasion in which Jesus steps outside of Jewish territory. He is in the region of Tyre and Sidon where the Phoenicians lived. A Canaanite woman approaches him and calls out: “Have pity on me, Lord, son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon”. Jesus says nothing, but she continues to call out to him, so much so that the disciples are getting tired of her and ask Jesus to deal with her. Jesus says to them: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But the woman persists, approaches Jesus and does him homage, calling him “Lord”. Does this mean that she really believes that Jesus is Lord and Messiah? Or is the title “Lord” here simply her equivalent of the English word “Sir”? Jesus knows the answer, but we don’t, so he puts her to the test, saying: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Earlier in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus said: “Do not give what is holy to dogs”. The Greek word employed in that passage is kuon, which refers to the undomesticated dogs that roam the streets rummaging through garbage. To refer to someone as a “dog” was profoundly contemptuous. But the word used here in today’s gospel reading is kunarion, which is a “puppy”, one fully domesticated. Kunarion does not carry the same contemptuous tone.

Nevertheless, that Jesus employs the term clearly indicates a distinction between Jew and Gentile. Jesus employs an analogy using the terms “children” and “dogs” (kunarion), which confirms that Israel is indeed that nation specifically chosen by God, His covenanted people, set apart from other nations. Jews believe this, but does this woman, who is not an Israelite, have that faith? Her reply is revealing. She was not insulted by what Jesus said, does not take offense and walk away indignant. Rather, she agrees and adds: “...even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters”. She regards him as the master of the house of Israel.

There’s nothing that pleases Jesus more than faith. Last week we witnessed Jesus’ disappointment with Peter, at the weakness of his faith, but today he marvels at the faith of a Gentile, a foreigner: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

I recall a priest friend of mine telling me that priesthood was the second greatest gift that God has given him. I was curious, so I asked him: What is the first greatest gift? His answer: faith.

Many people are under the impression that faith means “believing that God exists”. But that is not really faith. It does not require faith to have the conviction that God exists, because the existence of God is naturally known through the natural light of human reason. Atheism is actually a learned phenomenon, and has a great deal to do with psychology.

Faith, however, is supernatural. It is the belief in truths revealed by God and that exceed the grasp of human reason. Judaism is a revealed religion, the first religion that claims that God has taken the initiative and revealed Himself to man, specifically Abraham. The Old Testament reveals God as not merely the creator of all, but the God of history, in control of the hearts of all people, and all of human history is under His providential hand. He has chosen to enter into a special relationship with Israel, a marital relationship. Israel is His Bride. And His purpose is to expand that covenant beyond the nation of Israel to include all nations, but only through the house of Israel. God promised Abraham: “All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.” Christ, of course, is the fulfillment of that promise.

But none of this can be proven or known through the natural light of reason, but only held on faith. And we cannot give faith to ourselves. It is not like the other virtues that we can cultivate on our own efforts, like justice, affability, or temperance, or fortitude, perseverance, or sobriety, etc. These are natural virtues that we can acquire with effort. Faith is supernatural, and it can only be received as a sheer gift. And God gives His gifts to whomever He wills. In this gospel, it is clear He has given the gift of faith to this Canaanite woman. Her faith is a sign that the covenant is about to be extended beyond the borders of Israel, and in time St. Paul will be the Apostle who brings the gospel to the gentiles.

There are all sorts of non-Christian students who attend Catholic school. I regularly have Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Buddhists in my religion classes. And we just continue to teach as if they were all Catholic; we don’t change anything, we still proclaim the faith, we pray in the name of the Trinity every morning and afternoon, proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection, etc. But what I’ve found intriguing over the years is that these very students, after a time, believe in what we proclaim. So many of them believe that Christ really did rise from the dead, that he died for our sins and that eternal life is ours through him. They don’t necessarily stop being Hindus or Sikhs, but many of them, after hearing the content of the faith proclaimed, believe.

That’s a gift. Everyone is given sufficient grace to believe the good news of salvation through Christ, and many of them cooperate with that grace. Where that will lead down the road we don’t know. But it is interesting how many of these non-Christians actually assent to the basic tenets of the faith upon hearing it proclaimed.

If you have the gift of faith, it really is the greatest gift you have. Everything else we have is temporary. All our accomplishments will eventually be forgotten, all our wealth will eventually be spent, our health will eventually fail us, but only if we die with supernatural faith on our soul do we die a success. We cannot love God supernaturally, with charity, if we don’t believe in Him (consciously or pre-consciously), that He loves us and has revealed Himself to us, and promised us His blessings and calls us to love Him. And there is no greater gift than to be given the grace to know Him, to hope in Him, and to love Him, and to direct all our choices, everything we do, towards Him.

To live without the hope of eternal life is to live solely for this world. It is to live with a subtle and chronic fear of death, and when we live with that fear of loss, we become focused principally on ourselves, and our lives are then governed by a neurotic anxiety to preserve all we have for as long as possible. We are no longer free to love, and it is only through love of others that we find our freedom.

Faith is the greatest gift that God has given us, and that’s the one gift we ought to make every effort to preserve and keep alive. And it is kept alive through prayer, reading of the scriptures, spiritual reading, through a continuous effort to arrive at a deeper understanding of the faith, and through regular reception of the sacraments, the Eucharist and especially the sacrament of Confession. To keep the faith alive, there must be a commitment to grow in the virtues. If we don’t go forward towards greater virtue, we’ll begin to slide backwards. We’re too surrounded by temptation—we either go forwards or backwards. And if we go backwards, towards greater selfishness, we will lose the light of faith. And then we begin to believe only that which will justify our chosen lifestyle, and if that lifestyle is contrary to the faith, we’ll eventually drift away from it. And there is no greater failure than to be given the gift of faith, only to die without it, because we lost it as a result of our own neglect.

The more our faith grows, the more intense is the supernatural light that faith imparts, and it is that light that will enable you to understand. Believe in order to understand, said St. Augustine. Our most important work is to nourish the gift of faith.