The underdog – Wednesday, 18th week in ordinary time – Mt 15: 21-28
Hammering this Gospel passage home is not going to be that easy; you got to suss this one out. Jesus seems to have lost His empathy and perhaps this is the only narrative where, at first, He denies help to someone in need. So was Jesus just having a bad hair day after His run-in with the Pharisees in verse 1- 9?
You got to let the muddied waters of hatred between the Jews and Gentiles settle on this one a bit, to see why Jesus initially said what He did. Matthew calls the woman a Canaanite and this already indicates a deep seated historical animosity which Mark does not use; he calls her a Syro-Phonecian (Mark 7:24-30) a far more acceptable term of address.
Jesus, for some unexplained reason withdraws from Galilee and walks into the sea coast region, North West of Palestine, into Tyre and Sidon. The people of this land, which Israel conquered under Joshua, were considered pagans by the Jews. Many of the Canaanites had been pushed northward into Phoenicia when the Hebrews invaded the territory. The hatred was mutual and understandable.
When Matthew wrote the Gospel, he was writing to a Jewish audience who had a deep respect for the law, the tradition. They would certainly be intrigued if not offended by the actions of Jesus who willingly strayed and led His disciples into pagan land. While Matthew’s Gospel is not entirely hostile to the Gentiles, it most certainly keeps the door ajar for them to come on board.
Jesus thus ignores the woman’s cry for mercy; a cry not for herself but for her daughter who is tormented by a devil. It is plausible to assume that the fame of Jesus which had spread far and wide, reached the districts of this Phoenician neighbourhood. The woman, albeit a foreigner, identifies Him physically but also hails Him in messianic terms; she calls Him the Son of David.
This alone should have won her the favour she sought, for it takes the disciples another two chapters of this Gospel, for them to recognize Jesus as the son of God and bow down and worship Him at the transfiguration. Like the Magi, she adopts the posture befitting a king; she kneels before Him begging for help.
Yet much to the surprise of a modern day reader, Jesus at first ignores her and addresses His disciples. He seems to give them and not her, His rational for not helping; “He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Here is where Jesus meets His Waterloo; never underestimate the power of a desperate mother and if it means that she has to kneel before Him, then kneel she does.
It’s a bit mind boggling to think that this compassionate Saviour has turned her down twice already and the second time He does it with what seems like an unexplainable slur; “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”. Not only is this harsh to hear but even more repugnant when you realise that this was a contemptuous way of referring to the Gentiles; they were called kuon, meaning “wild cur” or an unclean dog. Jesus however uses the word kunarion, meaning “small dog” or “pet dog”. He did not insult her as the Jews did with the Gentiles by calling them dogs. He was merely explaining a point, using an example of a pet dog.
Perhaps it is a mother’s instinct that kicks in, one who will not be deterred by apparent negativity or insult. She is willing, even if it has to be like a pet dog, to joyfully accept the scraps. Heads must have turned listening to that comment and perhaps in Matthew’s community, hearts must have changed. It certainly made a deep impression on Jesus for repeatedly until now, He has had to chastise His disciples and even Peter for their little faith. It was a Gentile, an outsiders, a foreigner, one considered unclean and slurred upon, who wins the heart of Jesus with her ‘great faith’.
Surely but steadily, Matthew’s late first century readers were getting the point. The claim to merely be Abraham’s children would get them nowhere, if they did not mirror the ‘great faith’ of their historic enemies.
The day belonged to the underdog!
Fr Warner D’ Souza
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