Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Matthew 15: 28
Today’s gospel is one of the most startling dialogues in the gospel. In it we see Jesus actually experiencing a change in perspective on his own mission, and this happens through an encounter with a Canaanite woman. In the early stages of the encounter, Jesus’ mind is quite set and closed. He asserts most emphatically: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He then attempts to dismiss her by disparaging her with the typical tribal view of the Jews of his time: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Yet, despite all cultural norms to the contrary, the woman reacts to Jesus, no doubt out of a compelling concern for her daughter, but obviously also out of a faith in Jesus and a hope that he can heal her daughter. Jesus seems to come to realize that it may be outside of Israel that he finds the greatest faith and those ready to receive and accept his mission.
Jesus declares that this woman, who knows nothing of the tradition which forms Jesus and his own self-understanding, has great faith. She is able to recognize the truth of Jesus that so many others who have been raised and formed in the same tradition as Jesus cannot begin to really grasp. We read this startling insight into faith on the feast day of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein. Her life is the complement to the gospel story. She, who is formed in the Jewish tradition, comes to know the truth of Jesus in a way that so many of us who have been formed as Christians never fully understand or appreciate. Throughout her young life she searches for the truth. She is not searching for faith, for she already has it. It is her faith in life, in God, that motivates her search.
Faith is not our cognitive assent to the teachings of this or that particular tradition. It is not our “obedience” to the rules of the club to which we happen to belong. Faith is rather a core disposition of heart by which we trust, hope in, and love Reality, despite our limited capacity to grasp it. As Pope John Paul II said in his homily for the canonization of Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, “Looking back as a Carmelite on this period of her life (before her conversion to Catholicism), she wrote to a Benedictine nun: ‘Whoever seeks the truth is seeking God, whether consciously or unconsciously.’” The community of faith, as Jesus speaks of faith in the gospel today, is not confined to one church or one tradition. We may well reflect a profound misunderstanding when we speak of “having faith.” Faith is not a possession of ours; rather it possesses us. It is faith that impels us, as Tennyson puts it in Ulysses, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
It is this understanding of faith, and its universality rather than its restrictive sense, that infuses the call of Pope Francis to the Church to create “a culture of encounter.” What we are sure we know is actually an obstacle and impediment to faith. It is our certitude that closes us off from a relationship to mystery in life and to the Divine Mystery, a relationship that is only possible in faith. The Canaanite woman’s faith allows her not to be intimidated as the disciples try to distance from her and as Jesus insults her. In faith, she has a relationship to Jesus, without really knowing him, that trusts enough to counter him and to fight with him for the sake of her daughter’s well being. Jesus commends her faith because he has experienced it in the courage of her relationship to him, despite every social, cultural, and religious impediment to that relationship.
Before she ever becomes Catholic and certainly before she joins the convent, Edith Stein is living a “great faith.” To live by faith and to be the seeker that implies is a difficult stance in life. At times teachers of our tradition seem to imply that the greatness of faith is measured by our certitude. This is, however, profoundly mistaken. Certitude is the enemy of faith. It is an illusion we as human beings adopt in order to avoid the struggle of faith, of the attitude of constant searching, striving, and seeking, trusting that although we do not know the goal or the outcome we love and trust it. As the Xaverian Fundamental Principles put it: “You are called to a life of constant searching.”
What Pope Francis teaches us, then, is that living faithfully means living the “culture of encounter.” It means that we are always seeking what of the truth the other can teach us. The more foreign the other (as the non-Jewish woman of today’s gospel represents), the more likely it is that he or she has something new and important to teach us. Jesus is a radical religious figure because his “way” is not exclusively that of a single culture and tradition. This is the great heresy when Christianity is employed as part of the culture wars between the Euro-American West and the rest of the world. There is no faith is any such religious and cultural wars because they are essentially battles between those suffering the illusion of certitude.
Today we see in the very words and actions of Jesus that all of us tend naturally to distinguish between “our own” and “the others.” Even Jesus must have his mind and heart opened by the persistence of the Canaanite woman before he can recognize that her faith is, indeed, great. She will not cease her striving and seeking and will not yield until she finds the love and grace for her daughter that she trusts is there. There is so much for us to learn about the faith and nobility of the human condition. We learn so little of it because we confine our search to those who are like us.
Quite often I hear from parents of adult children who are so concerned because their children do not “practice the faith” in the way that they do and according to the ways that they tried to raise them. It can be alarming for them to see their children seemingly try out many alternate ways of believing and not believing, as well as of being with and serving others. It is obviously true that there is much in conventional belief and practice that seems no longer to appeal to younger people. In large part, however, it seems that there is a seeking and a searching that is far closer to the faith of the Canaanite woman in many who reject the conventional beliefs than in at least some who continue to follow them through routine or habit.
When a religious tradition ceases to have much room for those who are different and challenging, for admitting its incompleteness and so need for continual searching, it will atrophy. Every human gathering and institution will always tend to see its own as children and the others as “dogs,” or as Matthew has Jesus mitigate the charge, as “puppies” or “house dogs.” It will perceive its “mission” as enlightening those poor others who are unenlightened and as saving those who are mired in error. A living tradition, however, will always dare to strive, to seek, to find, to encounter the other as equal, ready to offer what one has but also ready to learn more of the truth from the faith of the other.
Dear brothers and sisters! The love of Christ was the fire that inflamed the life of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Long before she realized it, she was caught by this fire. At the beginning she devoted herself to freedom. For a long time Edith Stein was a seeker. Her mind never tired of searching and her heart always yearned for hope. She traveled the arduous path of philosophy with passionate enthusiasm. Eventually she was rewarded: she seized the truth. Or better: she was seized by it. Then she discovered that truth had a name: Jesus Christ. From that moment on, the incarnate Word was her One and All. Looking back as a Carmelite on this period of her life, she wrote to a Benedictine nun: “Whoever seeks the truth is seeking God, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
– Homily of St. John Paul II at the Canonization of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross