Opening the Word: Faith and free will

“Man is rational and therefore like God,” stated St. Irenaeus, “he is created with free will and is master over his acts.” Free will is one of the greatest gifts given to man by God; it is an essential characteristic of rational beings created in the image and likeness of the Creator. 

I emphasize the fact of free will because we can sometimes miss, or at least become desensitized to, the life-and-death drama described in Scripture — a drama that exists precisely because free will is so very real. The best example is Mary’s fiat, her “Yes” to God’s invitation to be the Mother of the Incarnate Word. Mary did not have to say, “Yes”; she was not a robot programmed to act against her free will. Rather, her will was so perfectly aligned — by her free choice — with God’s will, that she responded in the affirmative without reservation. 

Today’s Gospel recounting Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is a wonderful example of the profound drama that occurs when the perfect will of God encounters free will animated by faith. It is also a great mystery, for faith is itself a gift of God, yet not a gift that overwhelms one’s freedom. Jesus Christ is Lord and lover of mankind; he created all things, yet he never forced anyone to follow, obey or worship him. 

“But,” someone might object, “Jesus hardly comes across as the lover of mankind in this story.” An initial reading might indeed be baffling, what with Jesus’ initial refusal to speak to the woman and his subsequent remark likening Canaanites to dogs. But a closer reading reveals both the genius and profound love of the Lord. 

Immediately before withdrawing into the region of Tyre and Sidon, which were Gentile cities in Phoenicia, just north of Galilee, Jesus had clashed once again with the Pharisees and scribes (Mt 15:1-9). Jesus, incensed by the religious leaders’ hypocrisy regarding adherence to oral traditions surrounding the law, had quoted from the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips alone, though their hearts are far from me” (Mt 15:8; Is 29:13). He was tired of hearing one thing (the law) and seeing another (hypocrisy). After exhorting the people about what “defiles a man” (Mt 15:10-20), he went into pagan territory for a respite. 

But he was soon found by the Canaanite woman. How did she know about him? How did she find him? The answers aren’t given, but news of Jesus had obviously spread. Yet there is also something else at work, for the woman identified Jesus as “Lord, Son of David.” By God’s grace, she had been given the gift of faith; by her own free will, she presented herself with humility before Jesus. She knew he had every right, according to convention and as a Jewish man, to ignore her. And so he did — at first. Why? “It was not that the Lord was unwilling to heal her daughter,” observed Epiphanius the Latin, a fifth-century author, “but that he might reveal her great faith and humility.” 

Recognizing her humility, Jesus also saw the woman’s perseverance. “Lord, help me,” she said, a model of prayer for all of us, pressing on in the face of divine silence. Then, apparently rebuked even more harshly, she showed the astounding depths of her faith and humility. 

“O woman, great is your faith!” declared Jesus. The Canaanite woman, in other words, was the opposite of the Pharisees and scribes, being a woman with both free will and faith, a Gentile with both lips and a heart for God. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of