Year A – 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Persistence

(Isa.56:1, 6-7; Rom.11:13-15, 29-32; Mt.15:21-28)

Persistence can be such a good thing.  At university years ago, I fell in love with a girl and asked her to marry me. She said no, but I didn’t give up. Deep in my heart I knew she was the one for me.  Eventually, she did say yes, though, and now we’ve been together for 42 years. 

The Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, was also persistent.  Early in his reign he was defeated by the English and driven into exile. For three months he hid in a cave, where he watched a spider slowly build a web. It kept falling down, but it always got up again. 

Robert the Bruce was so inspired by that spider that he told his men, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’. He went on to defeat the English at Bannockburn in 1314. [i]

In today’s fast-paced world, many people simply give up when they don’t quickly get what they want.  But it’s often wiser to persevere, isn’t it? Especially with things that are good and worthwhile, and that you really believe in.

The Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel is also persistent.  She desperately needs help for her sick daughter.  When Jesus comes to town, she pleads to him, ‘Sir, Son of David, take pity on me! My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ 

At first, Jesus appears to ignore her. Now, why does he do that?  Everywhere else, he’s always compassionate towards those who suffer.

Jesus ignores her because he wants to teach his disciples a lesson.  This woman isn’t Jewish; she’s a Canaanite outsider living in present-day Lebanon.  Jews traditionally hated the Canaanites, and that’s why Jesus’ disciples want her to go away.  (They also wanted the crowds to go away before Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. But Jesus taught them about compassion by getting them to feed the 5,000.)

This time, Jesus wants his disciples to witness this woman’s deep faith.  ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,’ he says to her.  This is what they are thinking – that his ministry is only to the Jews.  But she won’t give up.  She kneels at his feet, saying ‘Lord, have mercy’.

Jesus then refers to her as a house-dog, a term that was quite commonly used back then. But she strongly rebuffs that, too. 

In the end, Jesus is so impressed by her persistence that he says, ‘Woman, you have great faith, your wish is granted,’ and her daughter is healed. 

Through this encounter, Jesus helps this woman, but he also teaches his disciples. He helps them understand that you don’t have to be Jewish to have faith, and that his mission is not just to Palestine, but to the whole world.

Now, did you notice when that woman cried ‘Lord, have mercy’?  We say exactly the same thing at every Mass in the Kyrie, when we say: ‘Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy’. These words come from the Canaanite woman. We say it three times, just like her.

But is our faith as deep as hers?  Are we as persistent in our prayer as she is? 

I hope you can see from today’s Gospel that there can be many reasons why our prayers aren’t always anwered instantly. God might be doing something else, as he did in today’s encounter. 

Or we might be praying for something that God doesn’t approve of, and he says ‘no’. Or our timing might be wrong, and he says ‘go slow’.  Or if we are somehow wrong, he might say we must ‘grow’ before giving us his grace. [ii]

In her book Monastery of the Heart, Joan Chittister says that life can often be confusing because God’s will doesn’t always come in straight lines or clear signs.  But one thing is inescapable, she says. The way we deal with whatever happens to us on the outside depends entirely on what we’ve become on the inside.  Wherever we have fixed our hearts, she says, will determine the way we experience all that happens to us. [iii] 

In other words, like the Canaanite woman, we need to develop strong and stable hearts that reflect our deep faith in our loving God.  He knows what he’s doing.  We must trust him, and we must be persistent in pursuing him.

In China there’s a type of bamboo tree that you must water every day. When you plant that seed, nothing comes out of the ground.  There’s no growth for the whole first year.

Now what would you do if you plant and water a bamboo tree for 365 days and there’s not even the slightest movement? In the second year there’s no movement. The third year, nothing. The fourth year, nothing.

Why waste any more water on that lazy tree?

But the people have faith. They keep watering that tree and in the fifth year, within six weeks the tree grows some ninety feet. [iv]

Trust Jesus. Be persistent in your prayer.


[ii] Fr John McTeigue, Why Won’t My Prayers Work? Aleteia, 8 March 2017

[iii] Joan Chittister, Monastery of the Heart, Bluebridge Books, 2011:159-162.

[iv] Swami Radhanath, Evolve: Two Minute Wisdom. (Ninety feet is about 27.5 metres).