First Reading: Is 56:1. 6-7; Psalm: 67. R. v. 4; Second Reading: Rm 11:13-15. 29-32; Gospel: Mt 15:21-28
GOD’S BOUNDLESS LOVE AND MERCY
BY FR VALENTINE NNAMDI EGBUONU, MSP
If there is any passage in all of the four gospels that raises some doubts as to the indiscrimination of Jesus; it is the gospel passage of this morning. It is as though Jesus played into the wiles of stereotype in a mild but obvious manner and pretended not to have done so. Racists could find the gospel passage of today very attractive because it seems the attitude of Jesus towards the Canaanite woman looks more like their approach and ideology. So today, we can dare to ask, “Is Jesus a racist?” “Does his attitude towards the Canaanite woman suggest so?” These questions underscore why it is paramount that we delve into the exegetical analysis of this passage to prove or disprove any claim that begs the question.
Jesus withdrew to the pagan region of Tyre and Sidon due to the rejection and antagonism of his people. This move suggests Jesus’ openness to bring the gospel to the Gentile world. The Canaanite woman’s encounter with Jesus therefore was not by chance. When she came to Jesus begging for healing for her daughter possessed by a demon, the initial silence of Jesus was not to disparage her but to test how much she needed him; for Jesus was coming from a place where he faced rejection. When she persisted, the disciples pleaded with Jesus perhaps not to exactly send her away but to grant her request that she may go away thereafter. This could be the reason why Jesus replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
This response of Jesus which was indirectly addressed to the Canaanite woman however does not suggest any discrimination. Jesus is known occasionally for setting stumbling blocks for those who run to him for help to see if they could jump over it. When Lazarus was sick and they sent for Jesus; Jesus did not go immediately (Jn 11:6). When John was in prison and sent his disciples to inquire if Jesus was the Messiah; Jesus did not give them the answer they needed (Lk 7:22-23). If Jesus was against helping some set of people, he would not command his disciple later on, to go into the world and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19). And if he hated the Gentile people, he would not have listened to the centurion or healed his servant for they were Gentiles also (Mt 8:5-13). So, Jesus was only further testing the faith of this woman when he said that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
But despite the seeming indisposition of Jesus, the Canaanite woman came and knelt before him saying, “Lord help me.” What Jesus said next sounds even more derogatory than the previous. Jesus this time around answered her directly that it was not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. Now, there is a subtext to this apparent disparaging comment of Jesus. The Jews regarded the Gentiles as kuon (wild dog), but not in the sense that they were animals but in the sense that they were hostile and unclean due to their pagan practices. Dogs are considered promiscuous and unclean because they are loose and they eat whatever is thrown at them. However, Jesus’ use of ‘dog’ was in a diminutive form – kunarion meaning a little domestic dog or puppy and not some dirty wild dog scavenging a refuse dump.
This may sound defensive. But it is also important to note the tone of voice with which Jesus said this, and his countenance also. Obviously, Jesus could not have said this with some scornful look on his face. Take for instance; there are times we use insulting words or phrases playfully. To call someone a weasel is an insult. But sometimes we can also use the same word to tease an astute friend. Nevertheless, this woman showed no offence but turned the words of Jesus inside out: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. She was like saying, ‘I know you were sent to the Jews, but I believe your mercy extends beyond the Jewish people. I am not asking for the food that belongs to the children (the Jews), but the crumbs they don’t want.’
One of the reasons why this act of faith from this woman was so remarkable was because it came at a time that the Jewish people rejected the food of the gospel. Jesus’ people did not accept him as the Messiah; but this woman addressed Jesus with the Messianic title “Son of David.” Jesus’ people needed a sign to believe; but this woman needed no sign to believe. Jesus’ people rejected the food of the gospel; but this woman showed faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Little wonder Jesus said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you desire.”
We can see that Jesus was not a racist after all. He even extolled this pagan woman more than he would do to anyone running to him for help. Our God does not discriminate. He causes his sun and rain to fall on the just and on the unjust (Mt 5:45). ‘In Christ, there is no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.’ (Col 3:11).
In life, when we have some advantages, we are often inclined not to cherish those privileges. And sometimes being in a disadvantage position can bring out some positive attitudes in us. While those who live in a desert area admire those in the city for their access to water; those in the city may not consider water as an expensive or rare commodity. While the poor are sparing with the little bread they have; the rich are often unthrifty and negligent to the privilege of abundance. While the sick prays for the blessing of good health; the healthy are often careless with the perfect health they presently enjoy. We should never take for granted the privileges of the present. The negligence and loss of the Jews became the advantage of the disadvantaged pagan woman. And although faith is a gift from God; sometimes our disadvantaged positions can accentuate how so much we are in need of God’s help.
Jesus demonstrates today that the mercy of God extends to all people both Christians and non Christians. God’s love knows no boundaries. We should see ourselves as the disciples who accompanied Jesus along the way. So the message of our master is very obvious and clear. We should be unbiased and indiscriminate in our acts of charity and love. God calls us to love beyond the boundaries of ethnicity, colour, and race. In this way, we would become more and more like our Lord Jesus who is for all and in all.
PRAYER FOR THE DAY
Lord Jesus, make us become more and more like you in all we do. Amen.