“Crumby Dog”, Ally Barrett 2017, @Reverendally.
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She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters.” Matthew 15:27.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
A very interesting gospel today, seemingly showing Jesus reluctant to help a desperate woman seeking help for her young daughter. Let us do a sitz im leben analysis of this scene to begin to understand it. Today’s gospel begins by stating where Jesus was, “in the region of Tyre and Sidon”. If you look those two places up in the atlas, you will see today they are located on the Lebanese Mediterranean coast, south of the capital of Lebanon, Beirut. Just as a drama is depicted in today’s gospel, there is a major drama in that same area right now. A few days ago, Beirut suffered a gigantic explosion of dangerous chemicals which has killed and maimed hundreds of people in a huge area of the city. The president has appealed for help from the whole world, just as our “Canaanite” woman did to Jesus 2000 years ago. She would be Lebanese today. Just as Jesus was reluctant to respond to her then, we might be reluctant to help the Lebanese today. But as Jesus did, in fact, respond positively to her, so should we help them today…..
Now, today’s gospel indicates Jesus’ whereabouts for a good reason. Jesus has moved out of a predominantly Jewish area into a Gentile area. Perhaps it was to get a bit of peace and quiet after the dramas related in the gospels of the last few weeks. It was not to be, of course. His fame had clearly spread even to these pagan lands, as we see. It might well have been the first time that Jesus had left the Jewish lands where he had grown up. His confusion can be seen clearly in how he handled this situation. He understood his baptism in the Jordan as giving him his identity as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Although messianic prophecies indicated that Gentile lands would also bow down to him, this was understood that they would come to him, not he to them. He had traveled to the coast for a little vacation, it can be assumed, not to bring his mission to the pagans. I think this was at the root of his untypical response to this desperate woman. He first kept silence, ignoring her completely. She persisted. Even his friends told him to tell her to clear off. He seems to agree with them, recalling his mission from God was exclusively to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”. She persisted still, again calling him “Lord” as if she were Jewish herself! She then collapsed into begging him for help. He now characterizes his mission as “Food for the children” not food for dogs, again a reference to his Jewish mission and the common attitude of the Jews towards Gentiles. She, even more desperate, grabs this as a possible chink in his armor, and, lawyer-like, states baldly that even dogs can eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table….. And that did it. At that moment Jesus saw through the fog of discrimination and hatred to the truth of hope and belief in every person, recognized her sincerity and authenticity, and granted that which she wanted more than anything else. He might even have thought of today’s first reading from Isaiah, supporting his action. The woman’s daughter was released from her crippling state. You might recall a similar desperate mother in that terrifying film, The Exorcist. It seems that the true story on which it was based happened to a Lutheran family. In desperation their minister sent them to a Catholic priest, a Jesuit it seems, for help. This also resulted, I believe, in a restoration of the child to normal life. Jesus’ outreach to everyone, as shown in the gospel, continues down to this day.
It could be said that this positive but hesitant step by Jesus towards the Gentiles was the foundation of the revolutionary outreach his followers were to show in the early years of the church. Indeed, the acceptance of Gentiles into the early, Jewish-Christian church almost led to its destruction. It took a council of that early church to handle the situation and come to a final decision to admit Gentiles as full members of the church. This has led to a present-day, world-wide church membership open to anyone, the modern Christian Church. The Jewish tradition has hardly ever called for missionary activity aimed at increasing converts. So Jesus’ hesitancy can be understood more easily when you consider the weight of tradition against which he embarked, beginning with today’s gospel passage. Had he not done so, think of the ways in which our lives and our world might have been utterly different, and almost certainly not for the better.
The Canaanite Woman, Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, c.1489, Condé Museum, Chantilly, France.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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