What a strange response by Jesus to this Canaanite woman who comes to him in need. First, he ignores her pleas to heal her daughter, then calls her a dog. After being insulted in such a way, I think most of us would become upset and leave quickly. The woman, however, perseveres, convincing Our Lord to heal her daughter.
Why did Jesus respond in this way? Was he being anti-pagan, as the Canaanites followed a pagan religion, or was he being racist, attacking this woman because she was part of a different ethnicity or heritage? I would say “No” on both accounts. Instead, Our Lord had at least two reasons, probably more, for his response. First, even though his call to salvation is for the whole world, Our Lord focused his earthly ministry on the Jewish people. Second, He used this event to test the woman's faith in Him, to see if she would persevere in her pleas for healing.
To understand the first reason for Our Lord's response, it's important to repeat that Our Lord's call for salvation is to the whole world. The passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus was not merely for the Jewish people, or for those who followed him when he lived on earth, but was for all peoples at all times. The Prophet Isaiah, writing about 700 years before the life of Jesus, predicted in the first reading we heard that God would open His salvation to all, stating that “[God's] house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” The people Isaiah calls “foreigners” are all those who were not of Israelite descent, and were not permitted to join in the temple worship which was reserved only to the Israelite people.
St. Paul, in the second reading we heard, obviously thinks that Isaiah was right, and believes that Jesus' death and resurrection opened the doors to the Gentile people, another term for Isaiah's “foreigners”. St. Paul believed this so strongly that he dedicated his ministry to the Gentile people. He spent much of his life as a Christian ministering and preaching to those who were not Jewish, with the great majority of his time spent in Asia Minor, now known as Turkey. While there were some Jews in this area at the time, they were a small minority compared to the other religions that were prevalent.
While St. Paul shows us that the Gospel of Christ is open to all peoples, Our Lord Himself chose to focus primarily on the Jewish people, who were the chosen people of God. God the Father chose the Israelite people, of which the Jews were the remnant after several periods of being conquered and dispersed, long before Our Lord came to earth. Because God is faithful to his covenant, as St. Paul reminds us when he says, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable,” Our Lord proclaimed His Gospel primarily to the Jewish people before the Apostles were allowed to spread the Gospel to the rest of the world. Even today, God is still faithful to His covenant with the Jewish people, but like the rest of us, their salvation comes through the Cross of Christ.
Our Lord spent most of his ministry with the Jewish people, but today's Gospel shows us one of the few exceptions that he made. This brings us to the second reason for Jesus' response, to test the faith of the woman. We know that if we ask for what we need in faith, God will answer us, but only if we approach Him in the right way. If we ask for things from God as if He was a divine delivery service, simply put in your order and it shows up a couple of days later, we would be approaching the Father in a prideful manner, expecting Him to do something that we're unwilling to do. As the woman shows us in the Gospel, we need to approach Our Lord with perseverance and humility, begging Him humbly to come to our aid.
This is how the woman responded to Our Lord, willing to lower herself to the level of a dog sitting below a table receiving the scraps from the meal. While a dog might eat well begging for scraps, depending on who was at the meal, this is not how many of us would like to get what we need to survive. Yet, when approaching Our Lord in prayer, we need to humble ourselves and persevere in our requests. Through our perseverance, humility, faith, and trust, Our Lord will hear our prayer and give the answer we need. This answer may not always be what we expect, but we will still receive the answer with joy if we are truly humble.
May we be willing to approach Our Lord with true humility and love, and like the woman in the Gospel, trust Him and persevere in asking Him for our needs.