20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
St. Leo Church, Little Italy
Aug. 16, 2020
Sometimes, I think, we regard our Catholic faith as we would a life insurance policy. Let me briefly spell out the comparison.
Often, it was our parents who bought our first life insurance policy for us, and when we were old enough, they explained its importance to us. At first, they paid the premiums but when we became adults we paid the premiums ourselves.
No doubt, we were glad to know about the policy, which we assumed help us toward the end of our lives. But, in the meantime, we give that life insurance policy little thought, unless, of course, we meet up with an enterprising insurance agent who convinces us to increase the amount of our coverage.
So it goes with our faith.
Many of us were baptized because our parents arranged it for us. In fact, they carried us to Church and witnessed the baptism, and even acquired an authentic baptismal certificate from the parish office.
When our parents thought we were old enough to understand, they told us about our baptism and its importance, and explained at least some of the obligations that flow from it. Our parents saw to it that our baptism was completed by arranging for us to receive our First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
But, as we grew older, we were expected to take responsibility for practicing the faith. Along the way, we were told that our faith is linked to our eternal destiny…to the final outcome of our lives – whether or not we make it to heaven.
In the meantime, however, many people give little more thought to their faith than they do to their life-insurance policies; they take their faith for granted. That is unless, of course, they encounter a zealous proponent of the faith – for example, a priest who is on fire with the faith or a devout parent or mentor.
Not Taking the Faith for Granted
Today’s Scripture readings remind you and me not to take our faith for granted, and they do so by pointing to those who had to struggle to attain the gift of faith. Take, for example, our first reading from the prophet Isaiah.
In that reading, Isaiah explains what was expected of a convert to Judaism. Foreigners who converted to Judaism were expected to love the Lord, to keep the Sabbath holy, to be of good mind and heart, and to adhere to the terms of the covenant God made with his people. But by explaining to the Jews the obligations imposed on converts to Judaism, Isaiah was subtly reminding the Jews of their own obligations to the Lord. It was the prophet’s way of telling them not to take their faith for granted.
Or consider today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
St. Paul reminds the Church at Rome that he was a Jew, a heritage he was proud of. Paul goes on to tell the Gentile flock at Rome that God’s call to the Jewish people was irrevocable, that is to say, that God will forever be faithful to the people he first made his own. Yet Paul also points out that being called is not enough.
It is all too easy to reject the call of God, even to part ways with God, by disobeying God’s commands and by tuning out the full force of God’s Word. Paul even suggests that the rescue of the Gentiles from their godless ways could be an incentive for God’s Chosen people to embrace God’s plan in its fullness.
The same holds true for us.
We should take note when someone changes their ways and reaches a point in life when they really open their hearts to the Lord and embrace their faith fully. This should prompt us to take our faith more seriously than sometimes we do.
The Canaanite Woman
But it is the Canaanite woman in the Gospel, who best dramatizes the lesson of not taking our faith for granted. The Canaanites were Gentiles who lived on the north coast of Palestine, and therefore were not included among God’s Chosen People.
We learn from today’s Gospel reading that this Canaanite woman was desperate to help her daughter who was afflicted by a demon. So, when she heard that Jesus was in the vicinity, she approached him, asking that he do something to assist her precious daughter in her hour of need.
But the response of Jesus and his disciples was downright discouraging. Annoyed with her entreaties, the disciples simply wanted to get rid of her. For his part, Jesus told her that he had come to rescue, not the Gentiles, but the Israelites who were lost. But the Canaanite woman would not give up. She did Jesus homage and begged him for help.
When Jesus said that it is not right to toss the food of children to dogs, she countered that even dogs receive the scraps that fall from the master’s table.
On hearing her response, Jesus recognized in the Canaanite woman a faith greater than that of many in Israel. Few had besought Jesus with so much faith, hope, determination, and humility.
So, Jesus exclaimed, “O woman, great is your faith!” – and because of her faith, Jesus relieved her daughter of the demonic torture from which she had suffered. In doing so, Jesus rewarded the struggle of the Canaanite woman to arrive at a strong and a persistent faith, a faith that would not quit.
Great Is Your Faith
Could Jesus say the same of us? – “how great is your faith!”
Sometimes, dear friends, we just assume that we are men and women of faith but without truly examining the quality of our faith. Is it dead or alive? Is it weak or strong? Are we ready to walk away when we are afflicted or disappointed? Or when God doesn’t seem to answer our prayers when and how we think he should?
Are we angry when our faith makes demands on us or do we so securely tuck our faith into our cultural heritage that it almost disappears from view?
A good litmus test of the strength of our faith is to ask ourselves whether we would have walked away if we had been that Canaanite woman – that woman who was rebuked by the apostles and rebuffed by the Savior himself.
I assure you, there is faith like that Canaanite woman’s in today’s world. Over the years, as a priest and bishop, I have often visited those who are sick, only to return home amazed and edified at their strong and loving faith.
When I was a recently ordained priest, I prayed with a young woman near death. She asked me to help her thank God for all the blessings she had received in her life. I came home from that visit and asked myself if I had one tenth of her faith.
People don’t become like that by accident. Like the Canaanite woman, they approach the Savior with faith, they pray with perseverance, and they pray with humility. Far from taking their faith for granted and far from presuming on God’s mercy, such people show us what it really means to make real progress in our spiritual lives, what it really means to be on the road that leads to holiness.
Our faith is not an insurance policy but an assurance policy – for, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” This assurance should embolden us, not to take our faith for granted, but rather to pray to the Holy Spirit to fan into flame the gift we received on the day when we were baptized, so that “we may attain [God’s] promises which surpass every human desire” (Collect).
And may God bless us and keep us always in his love!