The following is a homily for the twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. The readings can be found here.
So… Let’s be honest: today’s Gospel is a challenging one. If you were to meet someone who wasn’t a Christian, who had never heard of Jesus, this would probably not be the first passage you would show them. Unlike the merciful, humble, all-knowing God that we usually know him to be, what we get here appears to be a man who ignores someone in need, calls her a dog, and then all of the sudden changes his mind.
Not exactly a shining moment for Jesus. Not exactly a comfortable passage for us. So what do we make of this?
If you’ll indulge me for a minutes, I’d like to share parallel story that might help understand what’s going on here. In 2005 there was a basketball movie called Coach Carter. Based on a true story, it’s about a successful businessman, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who is asked to come back to coach the high school basketball team where he used to be a star, only the school has taken a horrible turn in 20 years. There’s gang violence and drugs, the players are skipping class and getting suspended. They’re just a disrespectful bunch of teens going nowhere in their lives. On the first day, he lays down the law—you will attend class, you will get good grades, you will act like men and respect each other. One player swears at him, tries to punch him, and ultimately quits the team. He leaves in disgrace.
Here’s where the story starts to parallel our Gospel. A few weeks later, he tries to come back. His life is a mess, he needs help, he just wants to play basketball. He shows up to practice and begs the coach, “What do I have to do to play?” It’s a moment of vulnerability, of humility. He comes to apologize. What does the coach do? He ignores him. “You quit. You’re not welcome here.” But he doesn’t leave. He stays right there, waiting. The coach turns around and says, “Okay. You can get back on the team. But you owe me 2500 pushups and 1000 sprints. Oh, and you have to do it by Friday.” An impossible task. The boy’s face looks sad. But he doesn’t leave. He puts down his bag, takes off his jacket, and starts doing pushups, starts running up and down the court. As the week goes on, he continues to work, and the coach does nothing but belittle him. “Give up. You’ll never make it. You’re embarrassing yourself.” But he doesn’t. He puts himself through pain and humiliation, he continues to work. There is a determination in him that no one has seen before—he is not going to leave until he’s accepted back.
At first, the coach looks like an absolute jerk. How could you treat a high schooler like this? But as we know from this coach, he’s a good man. He’s not doing this out of ego, not because he actually thinks the boy is worthless and will fail, but precisely because he wants to challenge him: show me that you’re serious. Show me what I know you can do, that you can commit yourself to something and work hard. Show me that you’re the man I know you can be. In one sense, the coach is saying, “Prove to me that you’ve changed.”
But it’s more than that. In a more important sense, what he’s saying is, “Prove to yourself that you’ve changed. I know you can do it, but do you know?” Up til now all we’ve seen is a kid messing around with gangs, skipping class, causing fights, quitting when things get hard. He’s afraid. To let him right back on the team might be fine, it’s what he wants, but it doesn’t address the real problem: he lives a destructive life because he doesn’t believe in himself. He’s never actually overcome a challenge—he just runs from them. In ignoring the playing, giving him an impossible task, putting every obstacle in his way, the coach was letting the player see for himself: yeah, I am committed to this. I can work hard. I can believe in myself even when others don’t. This could not have been accomplished by merely letting him back on the team the first time he asked. Sometimes the person we have to convince the most, the one who have to forgive above all, is ourselves. Am I really sorry? Can I do this? Are things going to be different this time around? He’s got to prove it to himself.
But do you know what? There’s even more than that going on here. You see, treating the player like this and forcing him to show his true colors wasn’t just about proving it to the coach or to himself—it was also about proving it to the other players.
The thing we often forget in these situations is that it’s not just about the person who leaves and comes back, it’s also about those who stayed and followed the rules the whole time. Had the coach just let the player back immediately, without showing his commitment, the other players may not have accepted him, they may have felt slighted, they might have learned that you can do whatever you want because it doesn’t matter.
But he does, and it pays off. You see, as hard as this player worked, Friday came but it wasn’t enough. He was 500 pushups and 80 sprints short. The coach told him he couldn’t play, “please leave the gym.” He starts walking away, but one of the other players calls out, “I’ll do pushups for him. You said we’re a team. If one person struggles, we all struggle. One player triumphs, we all triumph, right?” And so he does pushups. And another does sprints. And then all of the sudden the whole team is working for him, helping him up, welcoming him back to the team. This would not have happened had the coach let him play the first time he asked.
Although seemingly harsh at first, what this coach did was what everyone needed. The player needed to prove to the coach, prove to himself, prove to his teammates that he was for real, that he wasn’t going to desert them this time. And he did. He was tested, but didn’t give up.
In an odd way (and certainly long-winded way), that is precisely what is on display today in our Gospel.
Remember who the Canaanites were. They were people who lived among the Israelites for centuries, people who rejected the God of Israel, who went to war with them. While the woman herself might be “innocent,” what she represents is a people of infidelity and violence, someone who can’t be trusted. She represents a major enemy to their faith.
And so she asked for help, and Jesus ignores her. She asks again and the disciples tell her to leave. She asks a third time and Jesus insults her. And so we ask again, why does Jesus do this? Because he actually hates her and doesn’t want to help her? Not in the least.
From the very beginning, from the start of his ministry, we know that Jesus has come first for the people of Israel, but through them he has been sent to save everyone. This is precisely what we see in the first reading from Isaiah. He wants nothing more than for her and all her people to come back, to love God, to be faithful, to be a part of this team.
But her people have shown time and again that they are not faithful, that they don’t love God. Can he be sure that she’s going to be faithful this time? Just like the coach, he has to test her. He has to get beneath her request and see if she’s really serious. His actions do not show someone who hates a person and then is convinced to love them, it shows a person saying, “I love you and want you back, but I need you to prove to me, prove to yourself, prove to my disciples, that this time will be different. Do you seriously want this? Are you willing to endure some pain? Are you willing to work? Are you willing to be persistent?”
What we see is that the answer is unequivocally “yes.” Just like the basketball player, she doesn’t leave when ignored; she doesn’t cower when judged; she doesn’t run away when challenged. She shows that her faith is the most important thing in the whole world, that she’s willing to do anything to be accepted, to have her daughter healed.
She proves to Jesus that her hopes for her are real; she proves to herself that her faith is more than words; she proves to the disciples that foreigners can have faith, that they should accept her as one of their own.
Her witness of faith, just like the basketball player’s determination, offers us an example to follow today. How often we go to God in prayer and say, “Lord I love you. Lord I want to follow you. Lord I want your help.” It’s easy to say these words, to go to God when we need something. But how true is that faith? How much do we trust that God hears us? Unfortunately, there are times when we will not hear anything at first. It will seem like God is ignoring us. Will we stay and wait, trusting in God, or will we walk away? There are times when even the Church will get in our way, when disciples of Christ—the bishops, priests like me, your fellow parishioners—will discourage you, act uncharitably towards you. Will we stay and wait, trusting in God, or or will we walk away? Heck, there might even be times when we feel that God is rejecting us, that there is no place for us in the Church. In those times, will we still have faith? Will we stay and wait, trusting in God, or will we walk away?
Today, be like the Canaanite woman. Be like this high school basketball player. Let your faith, your persistence, your love, your entire lives prove to God, prove to yourself, and prove to your brothers and sisters in Christ that what you want more than anything else in life is Jesus Christ.
If you’re interested in watching the scene I described, it can be found here: