SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ NUM 13:1-225 – 14:1, 26-29. 34-35; MT 15:21-28 ]

It is not difficult to identify with the fear and dismay of the Israelites in the face of such formidable foes in the land that God had given to them to occupy.  They were inexperienced and untrained soldiers, probably with very primitive weapons compared to their more established foes. Those who reconnoitered the land said, “Its inhabitants are a powerful people; the towns are fortified and very big; yes, and we saw the descendants of Anak there.  Every man we saw there was of enormous size… We felt like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

Indeed, fear overcame them.  Upon hearing this report, the Israelites were overwhelmed by terror and fright. “The whole community raised their voices and cried aloud, and the people wailed all that night.”  Fear, of course, is always contagious. When we are alarmed, we tend to influence others and discourage them as well.

Like the Israelites, we too, when under threat due to seemingly insurmountable problems and challenges at home, in the office and in relationships, can be so crushed that we are tempted to give up hope.  We fall into despair and this is worsened when there are many discouraging voices around us that seem to confirm our pessimistic prognosis of the situation.  This can be even more daunting if we are leaders in our community or organization. When the leader loses hope and is diffident about the outlook, he would neither have courage and strength, nor the conviction to steer and motivate those under him to fight on.
Perhaps we can take comfort in our cowardice because, unlike the Israelites, we can at least give the excuse that we have not seen the great wonders and works that God performed for His people at the Exodus.  The Israelites had no justification for doubting the divine power of God.  For ourselves, although we might have seen some small wonders of God at work in our lives, these perhaps may not have been convincing enough to cause us to radically change our minds about God’s love, mercy and power. Of course, some of us may have had more significant God-experiences, or seen and heard testimonies of how God had saved their friends or relatives in a most miraculous way from their sickness, relationships or from financial straits.

The lesson we can learn from the Israelites is that forgetfulness of God’s love, mercy and power is the cause of fear, distress, discouragement and the loss of faith.  This was the lesson Israel learnt, as expressed by the psalmist.  “We have sinned, we and our fathers; we have committed crimes; we have done wrong. Our fathers in Egypt considered not your wonders. But soon they forgot his works; they waited not for his counsel. They gave way to craving in the desert and tempted God in the wilderness. They forgot the God who had saved them, who had done great deeds in Egypt, wondrous deeds in the land of Ham, terrible things at the Red Sea.”

How then can we remember His love for us?  The story of the Canaanite woman is a story of what faith entails.  She had an undaunted faith in the power of Jesus to heal, and total confidence in that not only could He heal, but that He would heal.  So assured was she of Jesus’ works of mercy that she would not relent even when Jesus appeared not to take notice of her and even suggested that His priority was to the House of Israel.  But this woman would not take “no” for an answer and continued pleading on behalf of her daughter.

This woman most probably had heard much about Jesus and may even have followed Him.  She saw the miracles He had performed.  She heard His teachings about God’s love, mercy and of His mission of establishing the reign of God.  She remembered His teaching and His miracles.  She knew Jesus so well and therefore had no fear of rejection.  She knew she would not return home empty.  So great was her faith in Jesus that she believed that even if she were to take the mere scraps that fell from the master’s table, it would be sufficient to heal her daughter. Her great faith, as Jesus commended her, reminds us also of another pagan, the Centurion, when he told Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you under my roof, just give the word and my servant will be cured.” (Mt 8:8).

We, too, are invited to trust in the Lord in such moments of trial and hopelessness.  We must believe that God will hear our prayers, even when we do not know how to pray as we ought.  All we need to do is to surrender the little efforts and trust that we have to the Lord, and He will elevate us further in our faith in Him, a faith that will set us free.  We must recall the good times, the blessings that we have received, the assistance we received from Him and how He had protected and guided us all this while till this day.  By remembering what He has done for us, we will regain our trust and confidence in Him.

We must also learn from the punishment meted out to the Israelites, that when we do not trust God and surrender our lives, plans and projects to Him, we will cause more problems for ourselves and those who have been entrusted to our care.  Complaining and moping will not do us any good, just as it did not help the Israelites.  Regretting and wallowing only make us inward-looking.  Staring at our navel instead of looking up to God will lead us to depression and despondency.

Like the Canaanite woman, we must press on with all our strength, trusting that God will do something for us, even beyond our imagination.  We must be proactive and take action.  During such trials, instead of grumbling against God and even becoming resentful of Him, we should take such occasions to grow in faith, in grace and in holiness.  It is said that the same fire that purifies gold also destroys the straws.  We can trust that Jesus will take the broken pieces of our lives and our wounded hearts and put them together to make them whole again.   Indeed, not only will He repair our hearts but He will transform them into something more beautiful than before.  As Psalm 30:11 says, “You have changed my sadness into a joyful dance. You have stripped off my sackcloth and clothed them with joy.”

Finally, if we find ourselves unable to make that leap of faith like the Canaanite woman, or to have that humility to continue begging from the Lord, then at least remember that He is patient with us.  He does not want to punish.  The penalty meted out to the unbelieving Israelites must not be interpreted literally.  When God pronounced judgment on them saying: “In this wilderness your dead bodies will fall … you who have complained against me.  For forty days you reconnoitered the land. Each day shall count for a year: for forty years you shall bear the burden of your sins … Here in this wilderness, to the last man, they shall die.” He knew that if they were not confident in seizing the Promised Land from the inhabitants, the whole community would be exterminated by their enemies. This explains why although they were geographically so near to the Promised Land, yet God made them travel the long way through the desert for forty years before entering it.  It was a way to strengthen their faith and to help them to psychologically come to terms with themselves. Three generations had to pass before God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled.

Psychological and emotional barriers require time to come to terms with.  So let us be patient with ourselves whilst seeking to imitate the faith of the Canaanite woman.  Let us ask for the grace of faith, which requires the gift of humility as well.  Only then can we surrender our lives to the Lord, knowing that nothing can overwhelm us as St Paul says, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:37-39).

Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore