“If you believe in God, ask Him for your wife to be saved with a miracle.”  That’s what a doctor said to a man named Alejandro Rivas while his wife Cecilia was in a coma.  Cecilia suffered complications from a cesarean section with the birth of their third child on August 28th, 2015.  This family in El Salvador was devastated that Cecila’s body seemed to be shutting down with kidney failure and her liver hemorrhaging.  The doctors were trying everything they could to keep her alive – medications, specialists, over 40 blood transfusions – but nothing seemed to help as Cecilia’s blood pressure was so high that it was essentially “off the charts.” The doctor wasn’t being flippant in telling Alejandro that over a week after the birth of Luis, his only hope was divine intervention.  They fully expected September 4th, 2015, to be her last night alive.  Alejandro returned home, devastated, to be with his family and his other two children.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 20, 2023.  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

Alejandro recalls what happened next: “Everyone in our community was praying… But I felt the need to pray myself.” He continued, “I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting… So I asked my grandmother how could it be that she, who was surely in heaven, wasn’t doing something to help?” It was then that he remembered that he had his grandmother’s Bible, so he went and got it, opened the Bible, and found a holy card of Archbishop Oscar Romero.  Government officials assassinated Archbishop Romero in 1980 while celebrating Mass for speaking out and calling for the protection of the poor and marginalized.  In the following decades, the people had been asking for Archbishop Romero to continue speaking out on their behalf, but now – in heaven – as an intercessor to God.  So Alejandro says he turned to the Archbishop in prayer, saying,

“Msgr. Romero, please listen to me…

For the great love you had for El Salvador,

for the great love you had for the family;

for the great love you had for pregnant women;

for the love you had for life, which even gave yours to defend it:

I ask you to beg God, in His great mercy, that my wife may not die.

Today, this night, may my wife not die.  I ask you to beg God for mercy.”

He made this prayer at 2:00 AM.  Going back to the hospital the following day, with the doctor’s predictions of his wife’s imminent death very much weighing him down, he was greeted by Cecila’s nurse, who shared that Cecilia’s bodily organs were working again and that they had started working again between 2 and 2:15 AM – the very time Alejandro had been praying.  Just two weeks after Cecilia was expected to die, she and her entire family attended Mass together to give thanks to God for this miracle – which led, three years later, to Oscar Romero being canonized a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church – which Cecilia, Alejandro and the entire Rivas family attended, sitting in the front row.

What is the point of prayer?  What exactly are we doing when we come to Jesus in prayer?  Is it to get a miracle?  If we don’t get a miracle, did we do something wrong?  Was God in a mood?  Maybe we didn’t pray enough?

Whenever this Gospel comes up, there are a lot of really problematic reactions that people can have to it, not just those hearing it in a congregation – but even from a variety of preachers, homilists, and theologians that can lead to some just flat our wrong interpretations and conclusions.

It’s understandable for us to hear this story of Jesus with the Canaanites and to get a sense of some things pretty quickly.  Being a woman, unfortunately, at that time and in culture, she was already limited in her ability to claim what was right, what was just in that society.  We hear she’s a Canaanite which you can figure out even without knowing a lot of biblical scholarship or background just by the dialogue St. Matthew captured that was a big issue at the time for the Jewish People.    The Canaanites were from the land that became “the promised land.” But they were not a part of the covenant.  God had led the Jews into that land, and the people who were there, the Canaanites, were displaced.  Suffice it to say there was literally over a thousand years of bad blood between the Jews and the Canaanites.  Just those facts alone put this woman in an incredibly vulnerable position among a group of Jewish men.  But for her, the most pressing concern at the moment is that she’s got a daughter who is possessed by the devil.  She had exhausted any possible means of helping her and could not do anything to relieve her.  So she comes to Jesus.  Why?  On the surface of things, taking her gender, and her background, it would seem the last place she would be looking.  Is it because someone heard something that had happened to somebody that this guy Jesus could do, so she tracks him down?  That’s not faith.  That’s called a referral.  Jesus isn’t worrying about how many stars he will get on Google or Yelp in his reviews.

And any preacher in any way proposing that Jesus is being racist or sexist because of his initial reaction and that he doesn’t immediately attend to her requests doesn’t realize how heretical they’re being.  Or those proposing that simply because there’s a need and the woman requests it, Jesus needs to fix it.  That’s not faith, either.  That’s called super-hero syndrome.  Jesus is more than some “Super Man” or fictional character someone dreamt up – He is God incarnate.

And those who like to paint this story as somehow the Canaanite woman is some feminist heroine because she sets Jesus straight and gets Him to change his mind are revealing how little they know about who Jesus is and how little faith they have as they bring their own agendas and biases into this passage.  Because it is the height of presumption, entitlement, and arrogance that anyone has a claim on God’s attention, and that His response needs to align precisely with their demands.  Because if that’s the case, it leaves those of us who don’t get a miracle left thinking we’ve done something wrong.  That we weren’t as persuasive or as demanding as this woman was.

This Canaanite woman demonstrates authentic prayer, which isn’t about rubbing a lamp to get three wishes.  It’s about humbling oneself before God.  It’s about having that conviction that He can do anything.  It’s about surrendering ourselves to Him and His will.  That’s what authentic prayer, that’s what genuine faith is about – which brings us to a place of peace despite the circumstances that first caused us to lose our peace.

Because when she first approached Jesus, Jesus already knew what was troubling her.  He is the God who sees not just the exterior but sees into the heart.  He sees the boldness of a woman who won’t let her gender in that society limit her.  He sees the strength of a woman who sees past the ridiculousness of thousands of years of strife between races.  He sees the dedication of a mother whose love for her daughter made her dig deeper within herself than she ever imagined before in her life, bringing her to this consequential moment.  And He is drawing out something even more significant from within her – faith in the God who’s always seen, always cared, always known and loved her – which goes beyond this particular trial and specific circumstance to where thousands of years later, we’re still talking about her.  She’s come to a place where she realized that nothing else mattered more than Jesus.  In that, yes, her daughter being healed was a tremendous blessing that brought the immediate relief that she had desired.  But the greater blessing was having Jesus look at her and say, “Great is your faith!” One of my great hopes and prayers is that Jesus would look at me and say the same.

Our God, who can make all things new, can work something of far greater consequence.  For the Jewish audience, this one encounter undoes thousands of years of strife, of tension, of seeing these people as less than, unclean, unwelcome, unredeemable fulfilling the promise of the Prophet Isaiah that we heard in the first reading “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Which brings us full circle.  The reason and the tremendous gift of healing and miracles that some experience are meant to help revitalize our faith, trust, and love for God.  But not in a possessive, demanding sense.  When they happen, like for this Canaanite woman, like for the Rivas family, they are incredible moments of encounter, of visitation by God.  They show up and show out in an astonishing way that defies human explanation.  But eventually, the Canaanite woman and her daughter died, as will Cecilia and her family and, one day, every one of us.  So our prayers aren’t meant to be about getting a desired outcome.  That’s an excellent place for us to start, for sure.  When we bring our cares, our needs, and our fears to God – that’s an excellent place for us to begin our prayers.  Trusting God, who can do anything – but trusting HIs answers no matter what they are.  Because I can’t tell you how many widows and widowers I’ve met who inspire me even more than the Canaanite woman- who, despite the pain of loss of their spouse, might still navigate confusion, anger, and sadness but are still at Mass, still at prayer.  I hear Jesus saying to them, “Great is your faith!” Or how many people I’ve met who’ve been let down by the Church, suffered abuse, been misled, experienced legitimate hurt but refuse to leave because they know that the Eucharist is Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and as much of a mess as some of His followers can make of His Church, in the end, it remains His Church.  Those individuals inspire me more than the Rivaas family with their incredible miracle – and to them, I can hear Jesus saying, “Great is your faith.”

The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis once put it like this:

“I pray because I can’t help myself.  I pray because I’m helpless.  I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping.  It doesn’t change God.  It changes me.”

May you and I, no matter what we’re experiencing, never lose sight of the love Jesus has for us, who is constantly waiting for us and wants to utilize our faith to continue to testify to the world all that He can accomplish.