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The Foreign Woman who Stopped Jesus in his Tracks – Biblical Reflection for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

August 10, 2011
[singlepic id=89 w=320 h=240 float=right]Today's watershed Gospel story of Jesus’ meeting with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28) presents us with a break in Jesus’ usual procedure of ministering only to Israelites and anticipates his great mission to the Gentiles. Jesus’ provocative encounter with the woman is set outside the land of Israel in the territory of Tyre and Sidon (near Beirut in modern-day Lebanon).
The woman’s commanding presence
Let us look closely at the story. This foreign woman approaches a Jewish man, does him homage and begs a favor she has no right to. She bursts into Jesus' space and pleads with him: "Lord, son of David, have pity on me! My daughter is terribly troubled by a demon." She commands Jesus’ attention to her very personal and specific request to help her daughter.
Jesus refuses to give in to the disciples pleading to remove this nuisance from their midst. He refuses to act on their reasoning. Instead, he directs the discussion in a way that the woman ought to accept his hesitation to cure. He says quite forcefully: "I am a stranger here; I should not interfere." Is this out of character, or perhaps is Jesus merely testing her? Or in the worst case, is he just profoundly rude, insensitive, and harsh?
"Help me!" the woman pleads. Jesus' next words seem excessively harsh: "It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs!" "Dogs" was a term used for outsiders who encroach upon another's holy place. It is an insult, a metaphor that sees others not as human beings, but as animals eating leftovers. We have every good reason to be troubled and even scandalized at Jesus’ terrible rudeness to this needy woman.
Two needy people meet
Both Jesus and the woman are outside of their native territories. Both are looking for something, both are in need, both are strangers to the area and to one another. They are different in race, nationality, gender, religion, and probably in politics, economics and spirituality as well. Is it not true that our reactions to this story most frequently centre on Jesus: what he's doing and saying (or not doing or saying) and why? It is disturbing that Jesus doesn't respond to her in the right way. The disciples view her intervention as a problem; they do not wish to be caught up in something that has nothing to do with them or with Jesus.
A longing for an ordinary life
Let us consider for a moment the reactions and purposes of the woman and of Jesus. The Syro-Phoenician woman is desperate–along with her daughter who suffers from a demon–a disease that isolates and makes people afraid and causes others to assume that they have sinned. Does she fear that her daughter's illness is connected to something she has done or failed to do? Does she fear a pagan deity who deals with everyone vindictively? This woman and her sick daughter have a need to live an ordinary life–without being tormented. How much have she and her daughter suffered from the mean talk and dismissive glances of her neighbors and friends? How great was their exclusion from their society because of the daughter’s condition?
A deeper understanding of Jesus’ mission
Jesus seems impatient and annoyed at being interrupted. Can it be that the Messiah has prejudices, nationalistic tendencies, and problems with those who aren't Jews? Was Jesus affected by being born in a specific locality, time frame, history and cultural background? He was truly divine and human, yet as a human being like us, he struggled with the sense of who he is: a prophet sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and the dawning of the difficult and painful realization that they do not want him; they were not listening, and were even beginning to reject and oppose him and his message. His identity as a prophet, a preacher, a teacher and as Messiah, was clearly at stake.
Two worlds collide
[singlepic id=90 w=320 h=240 float=left]These two strangers have much in common in that both Jesus and the woman live on behalf of others. They are both hurting; both are looking for help, insight, and a way to survive in their respective worlds. Both are seeking and looking for acceptance, hope, a future and some compassion. The woman has a mother's love for her child and Jesus, the prophet, bears God's love for all God's children. In this unique Gospel encounter, the world of the troubled woman whose daughter is dying and the world of Jesus, the Jewish prophet who is being rejected collide. There are profound lessons in today’s Gospel account. There are profound lessons in today's Gospel account. It is the promise of an ever-deepening identity not just for Jesus, but also for Matthew's community and for the Church throughout the ages that listens to his story that is truly Good News.
Breaking down barriers
The Syro-Phoenician calls Jesus Lord, refers to him as master, and humbly says that she, like dogs at the table in the household, will gladly take the leftovers of his mission and power. She receives from him what his own people will not accept. And Jesus is astounded at her faith (28). This woman stopped Jesus in his divine tracks and forced him to rethink his whole mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Together they broke down the barrier that existed between them.
The courageous heroine of today's story could not accept the premise that salvation did not include all people. She is allowed to participate in the messianic salvation that is offered to all who believe in the Lord and keep his commandments, regardless of origin or social condition. She proclaims that the love of God cannot be bound.
Jesus’ universal mission and message
In Jesus, the prophetic words of Isaiah in today’s first reading (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7) are realized: “The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, ministering to him, loving the name of the LORD, and becoming his servants—all who keep the Sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Immediately following this Gospel scene, Jesus crosses over to the other side of the lake. Now his mission is to the world–to all peoples of the earth and all the lost children of God. Because of the Syro-Phoenician woman's persistence, Jesus gains new insights into universalism, love, and service and extends his mission past his own people, his own religion, his own nation.
Any encounter or understanding of the Word changes our way of seeing God, of relating to him and to others. Who knows what will happen to us when we open ourselves up to God and allow His Word to work within us? We will meet strangers and outsiders who interrupt our lives, stop us in our tracks, and force us to ask deeper questions. We may end up, like Jesus, praising the still greater faith in strangers and outsiders.
Paul glories in his ministry
In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (11:13-15, 29-32) the unbelief of the Jews has paved the way for the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles and for their easier acceptance of it outside the context of Jewish culture. Through his mission to the Gentiles Paul also hopes to fill his fellow Jews with jealousy. Therefore he hastens to fill the entire Mediterranean world with the gospel. In God's design, Israel's unbelief is being used to grant the light of faith to the Gentiles. Meanwhile, Israel remains dear to God, always the object of special providence, the mystery of which will one day be revealed. Israel, together with the Gentiles who have been handed over to all manner of vices (Romans 1), has been delivered…to disobedience. The conclusion of Romans 11:32 repeats the thought of Romans 5:20, "Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more."
Being Christian means being missionary
In the Lineamenta (preparatory document) for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization next October 2012, one passage resonated clearly with today’s provocative Gospel story. Under section #10 “The First Evangelization Pastoral Solicitude and the New Evangelization”, we read:
The missionary mandate which concludes the Gospel (Mk 16:15ff; Mt 28:19ff; Lk 24:48ff; Acts 1:8) is far from being fully carried out; it has simply entered a new phase. Pope John Paul II stated that "the boundaries between pastoral care of the faithful, new evangelization and specific missionary activity are not clearly definable, and it is unthinkable to create barriers between them or to put them into watertight compartments. [...] The Churches in traditionally Christian countries, for example, involved as they are in the challenging task of new evangelization, are coming to understand more clearly that they cannot be missionaries to non-Christians in other countries and continents, unless they are seriously concerned about the non-Christians at home. Hence missionary activity ad intra is a credible sign and a stimulus for missionary activity ad extra, and vice versa." Being Christian and "being Church" means being missionary; one is or is not. Loving one's faith implies bearing witness to it, bringing it to others and allowing others to participate in it. The lack of missionary zeal is a lack of zeal for the faith. On the contrary, faith is made stronger by transmitting it.
The Pope's words on the new evangelization can be translated into a rather direct and crucial question: "Are we interested in transmitting the faith and bringing non-Christians to the faith?" "Are we truly missionary at heart?"
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
The readings for Aug. 14 are Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; and Matthew 15:21-28