Intercessory prayer…

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[20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, August 17, 2014. Isa 56:1, 6-7 /
Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6+8 /
Rom 11:13-15, 29-32 / Matt 15:21-28]

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In the gospel today we meet a remarkable woman. She was a Gentile, a non-Jew, who approached Jesus with a request. She calls out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon” (Matthew 15:21-28). In the Marcan version she falls at the feet of Jesus. She asks the Lord to have pity on her, not for her own sake, but for her daughter who is possessed by an evil spirit. What catches our attention is the apparent indifference of Jesus who did not say a word to her. How can this be, seeing as Jesus is always presented as caring and compassionate? The disciples then try to send her away but she is so very persistent. Jesus tells her that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The woman responds by kneeling down in front of Jesus! Jesus then delivers what seems to be the killer blow—“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Once I had a little dog called Dougal. He was a West Highland terrier or what is typically known as a “Scottie dog.” He had white fur and was very cute. My brother and I would feed him at the table. After we had eaten we would pass him the scraps but our parents told us not to feed him at the table. Once I did not want to eat my dinner so I passed some of it secretly to Dougal under the table. However he gave the game away when he started whining for more! This image helps us understand the custom of feeding the children first before the dog! What Jesus is saying is that his priority is first to the Jews and not to the Gentiles. To call them dogs (actually the Greek word used, kunariois, means little dog or puppy) was a Jewish term of contempt, along with swine, for Gentiles. But the woman in a beautiful response turns the tables and says to Jesus, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Wow, touché! Well done girl! And Jesus is impressed. He commends her not for a smart answer but for her faith. He said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

What can we learn from this episode? Well this woman is an example of prayer and perseverance. She does not give up! Jesus ignores her at first and it seems that at times the Lord does not answer our prayers. Well actually sometimes he does and the answer is “No!” We have to accept that. It depends on what we are asking for. God will answer our prayers in his own way. He knows best and we have to humbly accept that. Persistence and perseverance are very necessary as Jesus reminded the people in other moments with the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-7) where Jesus declares, “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them?” What is touching in the gospel of today is that the woman is not asking for herself but for her daughter. It reminds us of the importance of intercessory prayer, when we come in front of the Lord not just simply with our own needs but also with those of others. There is a saying attributed to St Augustine which says: “Nothing will give us a more firm assurance of being eventually saved than to help as many people as we can to attain salvation.”

Once I was talking to a man who was really struggling to maintain the faith of his brother. His brother was living a dissolute life, far from the Lord, not seemingly interested in anything vaguely spiritual, or anything other than money! This is a situation faced by many wives too whose husbands do not go to church and do not seem so immediately interested in spiritual things. When I was speaking to this man, the phrase of Pope Pius XII came to me – the salvation of many depends on the sacrifice and prayer of the few. Wow! This was the light the man needed. He looked at me, his eyes widened and he said, “Repeat. I must write that down.” He took out a ball pen and a piece of paper and carefully noted it. I never bumped into him again but the Holy Spirit spoke to him that day. Let us have faith in the power of our prayer especially when we intercede for others. And in that line, don’t forget to pray for me and our mission as Verbum Dei to spread the Word of God.

I close with the life of St Maximilian Kolbe who the Church also remembers today. He gave his life for another in the concentration camp. He interceded for a stranger, a father with a family, and gave his own life instead. Maximilian Kolbe gave an incredible example of faith and courage and helps many Christians today to take steps forward in their faith amidst challenges and even persecutions. Let us pray for his intercession and ask that he inspire us to intercede for others also. Amen.

Father James McTavish is a priest of the Fraternidad Misionera Verbum Dei (FMVD) religious society. He is a physician.

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