Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Aug 12, 2020 | Gospel Reflections

Matthew 15: 21-28

Sunday Reflection by Sister Nina Vandamme, SNDdeN


This passage from the Gospel is about the faith of a Canaanite woman. She did not belong to the chosen people of Israel. Jesus was with his apostles in the region of Tyre and Sidon where the woman lived and to which He had withdrawn. In the passage immediately preceding this one in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was involved in a discussion with the Pharisees about authenticity in our actions and about what defiles our heart. Perhaps this is an invitation for his disciples – and us – to examine our own actions and to ask ourselves: Am I focused on a meticulous adherence to precepts and judging others on their own adherence to them, not to mention condemning them? Or am I focused on God’s good news, which is love? Do my actions correspond to that?

In the passage for this Sunday, Jesus comes face to face with his mission, which was meant for the “chosen people.” This Canaanite woman pops up in the story as someone who disturbs the peace. She is a stranger, a heathen. In an unusually loud voice, she cries out to be heard: not for herself, but for her daughter who is tormented by something that makes her unable to resist the power of evil. She feels helpless – the state a mother experiences when things are going badly for one of her children who is running into difficulties. She calls out to Jesus with the words: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This shows that she certainly knows who she’s speaking to. For Jesus, this is apparently an annoying situation that He has not yet come to terms with. He doesn’t even answer her. It is inconceivable to a woman with such an urgent request that Jesus apparently doesn’t even hear or answer it. His disciples, who see this situation as a “nuisance,” intervene and tell Jesus to send her away. This would be a quick and easy solution for “getting rid of her.”

This situation forms a temptation for Jesus who is wrestling with his calling. He is, after all, sent to the lost sheep of Israel. We also wrestle with the signs that appear on our paths and challenge us to give shape to our calling or to broaden it. Jesus responds to the woman and is clear in what He says: “I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” A powerful response.

But the woman does not give up. She throws herself at his feet, as the ultimate sign of her entreaty. She again expresses her urgent request: “Lord, help me!” Jesus remains steadfast and attempts to explain the issue he is wrestling with by using a metaphor. “But the bread that is meant for the children, the chosen people, cannot be thrown to the ‘dogs,’ the heathen.” Jesus uses a term here that shocks us. Who wants to be called a dog? But the woman uses the same term to reinforce her faith. She is content, “like the dogs,” with the crumbs that fall from the table. And here Jesus yields. He is deeply affected by the faith of the woman, her persistence and the fact that she keeps on insisting on his help. Whenever Jesus encounters faith, a certain irresistible power radiates from Him. The woman’s request is granted, and her daughter is healed. In this event, both Jesus and the woman discover a new dimension of “calling.” A calling is never completely defined and evolves together with the signs of the time.

Discovering a calling happens in dialogue, its authenticity reveals itself in the power to listen to each other, even if it is difficult to do so, until irresistible faith breaks through.

Do we see the invitation here to broaden our calling in difficult circumstances and to go down new paths?

The woman reminds me of St. Julie Billiart. In this story I can see her perseverance to keep going in spite of resistance. Is there something of this virtue in you, in me?


Matthew 15: 21-28

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.

Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying,
“Lord, help me.”

He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.

The word of the Lord


Meet Sister Nina Vandamme, SNDdeN

Nina Vandamme was born in Antwerp in Belgium: she entered the Sisters of Notre Dame at the 8th of September 1967. Before entering the Sisters of Notre Dame, she taught for 3 years at the first year of a primary school in Antwerp. After her novitiate, she taught for 9 years at the SND primary school in Berchem again in the first year and worked for another 9 years as a remedial teacher for children with learning difficulties in the same school. After that she was missioned as a principal to the primary school and kindergarten of Antwerp for 13 years. Sr. Nina is very grateful for what she has been able to learn from children. She says: “They have been my teachers. I sometimes wonder who was teaching whom: did I teach them or did they teach me?” She responds: “The answer is probably: ‘a bit of both’, but at all events I owe them a great debt–especially, those who challenged me to keep searching until I found what they needed and refused to let me give up.”