By Fr. James Smith, C.PP.S.
I have had a number of jobs in my life, even at 35 (a hazard of the “gig econom,” I suppose). 2010 Census enumerator. Lifeguard. Swim instructor. Day camp counselor. Bartender. Summer events coordinator.
The worst, by far, was the first job I had at the age of 14, which probably violated child labor laws, but oh well: youth baseball umpire. Because of my age, I wasn’t given the more “competitive” fields, but the lowest of the age groups at a weekend tournament, the t-ball field.
The reason this job ranks as the worst I have had, and probably will ever have, is the amount of yelling, screaming and almost-throwing-things-at-me behavior the parents and coaches exhibited towards me. Please note: this was the kind of t-ball where every kid gets to bat in the inning, even after 3 outs. We kept score, and there might have been trophies, but this was 7- and 8-year-old t-ball. The other fields at the ball park didn’t come close to the amount of yelling I received. At the best interpretation of their behaviors, the t-ball parents and coaches were fighting for what was fair for their kids.
The Canaanite woman in Matthew’s Gospel reminds me of some of those moms, especially those I personally knew in that crowd. This unnamed parent from the region of Tyre and Sidon comes up to Jesus and asks for help. Help not for her, but for her daughter. Jesus ignores her. But like a good parent, she is persistent, at least to the point that Jesus’s disciples complain about her. Strikingly even from Matthew’s words of this encounter, Jesus does not address this mother directly until the very end, almost suggesting she doesn’t deserve to be addressed directly by him. Her persistence gets the disciples attention, but it’s her creativity and banter in response to Jesus’s own words that get him to act. From Matthew’s words, Jesus’s mind is changed by her actions. She goes from being dismissed to leaving twice to being commended for her faith, all because she refuses to give up on her daughter.
One of the beauties of Matthew’s introduction of this woman as an unnamed character is that it gives us the chance to fill in the character. Our memory might place our own mothers in that role, parents who prayed night and day for us, just as fervently as Monica prayed for Augustine. Or possibly the place of the woman belongs to a sister, cousin, or friend whose prayers and persistence in faith has shaped us.
These days, I’m more inclined toward the tradition of the Old Testament prophets and wisdom literature that puts Wisdom herself as the personification of God —the prophets who remind us that even if a mother forgets her child, God will never forget us. God as a persistent parent who will stop at nothing to care for us, to love us, and to bring us to new life. May our hearts be reminded of God’s persistence in seeking us and caring for us, that we might be transformed by God’s overwhelming care and concern for each of us.
Fr. James Smith, C.PP.S., is a student at Graduate Theological Union pursuing studies in pastoral and practical theology. A 2009 graduate of Saint Joseph’s College, Fr. James was ordained in 2017. He resides at the C.PP.S. Sonnino Mission House in Berkeley, CA.