August 3, 2016
by Rev. Steve Ryan
Creighton University's Dental School
click here for photo and information about the writer

Wednesday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 409

Jeremiah 31:1-7
Jeremiah 31:10, 11-12ab, 13
Matthew 15: 21-28
Praying Ordinary Time

Weekly Guide for Daily Prayer

This can be a hard Gospel to digest.  Why can’t Jesus lighten up?  After all, the woman has a sick child.

Time and experience can provide a new lens to stories we’ve long struggled to comprehend.  For me, this is one of those.

One of Jesus’ titles is “Rabbi,” which means teacher.  I never quite got a handle on this passage until I had spent time as a teacher.

Let me explain.  Sometimes a student may utterly surprise you with something she says in class.  You didn’t expect it, and it momentarily catches you off guard.  Meanwhile, you know that she is onto something important:  an insight is coming together in her mind.  At that point, your role as teacher is to help her to a fuller articulation of her thought.  One way to do that would be to offer differing points of view.  These you may or may not believe; what matters is they help coax out her emerging thought.

So let’s apply this scenario to this encounter:
A stranger in crisis approaches Jesus, pleading for his help.  The account relates he says nothing.  I suspect he is struck by her courage and force, and needs a moment to absorb and assess what is unfolding.

She continues to plead.  The tension is palpable.  A Gentile woman approaching a group of Jewish men.  Some ugly things are in the air.  Suspicion.  Bigotry.  Animus.  The disciples want her dismissed.

But Christ sees a teaching moment and seizes it.

At first he responds, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Here, Christ is reiterating what he said earlier in missioning the Twelve (10:6).  By history and destiny the Jews are the early priority demographic.

But she refuses to be denied.

Christ goes on, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  Whatever his own thoughts might be, he is giving voice to what others nearby are thinking—and, in so doing,affords the woman an opportunity to fully assert herself.

She answers with, well, dogged determination.  And perhaps a whiff of exasperation and deserved sarcasm.  Her response might be paraphrased this way:  “Okay, I know some of you think we Gentiles are no better than dogs.  But if this God of yours is as great as you think—then there should be plenty of compassion to go around.  Even for us.”

In what has been part teaching moment, and part skirmish of wits between two differing views of what the reign of God might mean, the woman acquits herself splendidly.

Christ can see she understands the expansiveness of God as well as anyone can.  He gives her a ringing affirmation and grants her request.

The apostles, meanwhile, are left scratching their heads and asking themselves, “What just happened?  What does it mean?”

It can be unsettling for the reader that Christ does not explicitly challenge and correct the bystanders’ narrow attitudes.  But he seems to be taking the long view.   Not every lesson can be grasped at once.  Sometimes an idea needs to percolate over time—infusing the mind, and seeping into the heart. 

We know the reach of the Church’s mission evolved in stages. With this exchange, the process is underway.  

Fast forward to the Acts of the Apostles.  The controversy over Gentiles clamoring for a share in the Good News threatens to tear the nascent community apart, until Peter settles the matter:  “I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality.  Rather, those of any nation who fear God and act uprightly are acceptable to him” (10:34-35).


Lesson learned.

And so the young Church opens its arms to the Gentiles.  For Christ’s sake.

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