The Gospel recounts yet another very human encounter with Jesus; one that we can readily identify with. Many of us have been praying earnestly during these last months, as we seem to have faced one crisis after another. We hear how a desperate mother approaches Jesus, because her daughter is in great need. She will do anything for her daughter and despite being seen as a pest, she will not be deterred. Even worse, Jesus seems to be stern with her and seems to refuse her request not once, or twice but three times. However, she still persists and so her prayer is answered. To savor the many layers and richness in this moving and human encounter, we need to step back a little and to reflect a little bit more on our readings.

We hear the most wonderful prophecy from Isaiah (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7) in our first reading; promising that God’s justice will be revealed. What is more, His salvation will come, even to those who are not part of the chosen people. God’s love will not be bound by any sort of boundary! In fact, this universality of God’s love is a frequent theme of this part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. So much so, that we use it frequently during the season of Advent, when we focus upon the coming of the Messiah for everyone. Our psalm (Psalm 67) takes up this theme too, as it sings that all nations should be glad and exult and all peoples can give praise to God; not just an elite or a select few!

Normally, the second reading at Mass on Sundays follows its own cycle and so is not necessarily connected with the other readings. This Sunday however, the second reading (Romans 11:13-15, 29-32) very much ties in with the other passages from Scripture. We continue to hear from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (written, scholars think, around 56-58 AD to the early Church in the imperial capital of Rome). St. Paul writes of his mission to bring the Gospel to all nations, including the gentiles. God’s gifts, he continues, are irrevocable, but they are also given to all, especially God’s gift of mercy. Again, God will not be bound by boundaries!

All this helps us to have a better understanding of that encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Incidentally, have you noticed how often evangelization in the Gospels (people coming to faith and to a loving relationship with Jesus) happens when they meet and experience Jesus. Yes, Jesus does speak to the crowds, but often he has these life-changing encounters with one, or just a few, people. Perhaps then, this is a great model for evangelization today. Yes, we need programs and courses; but often becoming disciples and being disciple-makers happens in and through encounters. Things such as praying, sharing a faith story, or just simply listening.

In our Gospel then, there is a wonderful dynamic at work and one that gives us a model or pattern for our discipleship, or our attempts at disciple-making. First of all, we see that God’s love and mercy are inclusive and not exclusive; not bounded but boundless, not merited but gratuitous. We probably know this already, so what else can we discover? Perhaps the Canaanite woman can help us to explore another layer in our Gospel story. God’s love and mercy are indeed boundless and inclusive; but sadly, we can put boundaries around it or make it exclusive. It is rather like the air that is all around us and yet we can choose to hold our breath and refuse to breathe (or worse still, prevent others from breathing!)

Instead, the woman in the Gospel shows us what qualities and characteristics are needed to breathe God’s air. She was a woman of faith … of dogged faith indeed (pardon the pun)! She also had great hope: she just knew that Jesus could help her and that things would turn out well. She was also a woman of unselfish love. She did not care that she was creating an embarrassing scene, nor that she was being rebuked. She loved her daughter and that love gave her great spiritual courage and determination. With this she also had a deep humility: she does not stand on her dignity or status. Furthermore, there is no whining, or a sense of entitlement. No, she knows that she comes to Jesus as a beggar and with nothing: instead she depends on Jesus’ love and mercy. And so, as our Lord says, “O woman, great is your faith, let it be done for you as you wish.”