Sunday the Twentieth

Antiphon: God, our protector, keep us in mind; always give strength to Your people. For if we can be with You even one day, it is better than a thousand without You (Psalm 83:10-11)."

Responsorial Psalm: "O God, let all the nations praise you! (Psalm 67)"

Scripture excerpt: "Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour (Matthew 15: 21-28)."

The scene is familiar in Jesus' Public Ministry. A request is made of Jesus. At the end the request is granted, noting the faith of the person. Sound familiar? It is a pattern found in many of Jesus' healing works. The difficulty, if I may use the word, is neither the request nor the result. It is the dialogue leading to the conclusion, especially Jesus' words to the Canaanite woman that causes many to squirm. Initially, Jesus ignores her request. When she comes back at him, He all but says, 'because you are not Jewish, I cannot help you' (“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”). Her response causes Jesus to respond in a way that stops many of us dead in our tracks. Did Jesus refer to her as a dog? I once asked undergraduate students in a Gospel course their take on the episode if it were a person other than Jesus. Many used words such a bigot, racist and even a narcissist. But the reality is this Person is Jesus, and the literal sense of the Sacred Text (it is what it is) challenges us in a way like the woman challenging Jesus.

Let's step back a moment to Scripture 101, particularly Catholic Scripture 101 which is guided by the Church's teaching at Vatican II, Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation). In chapter 3 of the document (article 12) we read, "But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature." What this means for us is that we seek, with the Holy Spirit, prayerful study/research and the judgment of the Church, the original intention of the account. We also listen and ponder the text, no less importantly, in the context of the Church's living Tradition. This Tradition celebrates and proclaims the sinlessness of Jesus as the One Who saves all from their sins (see Matthew 1 and Eucharistic Prayer IV). So while we affirm Jesus' true human nature, we also affirm His true divine nature in the unity of a single Divine Person Who is sinless. Where then does this leave us with Jesus ignoring a person and using what amounts to an ethnic slur?

I do not like using personal examples, as I am well aware of my own limitations, shortcomings and sins. But as I was driving for hours today as well as sitting in construction zones on a major Interstate (and not to mention a week of discussing this with priest and bishop friends on vacation), I could not help but think of an episode when I was undergoing the final examination for my theology license examination (an STL) in Rome. A panel of 3 professors (imposing as they sat on a dais in their Dominican habit) began with the first examiner critiquing and questioning my 45-minute theology lesson (what they call in Rome a 'lectio coram'). The next examiner 'put me through the ringer' on a variety of topics in Dogmatic and Patristic theology, in rapid-fire succession so much so that I could hardly breathe between my response and the next question. The examiner didn't even tell me if the response was correct or incorrect. When he was finished, I breathed a sigh of relief, as the next examiner was my beloved director. He and I spent many hours conversing about the Fathers of the Church. A true polyglot, Fr Ambrose Eszer OP (Ambrosius Eßer, may you rest in peace!), shared with me many of his works in various languages on the Church Fathers as well as conversation he had with Fr Irene Hauser, a giant in the world of Patrology many years ago. I thought to myself, this part of the examination would be a breeze. Well, Fr Ambrogio, with his heavy German accent, directed me to pages of Greek that I had translated in the tesina (for Americans, a tesina is a Master's thesis on mega-steroids). He opened by challenging my translation of a patristic Greek text. He then selected Greek words at random and wanted me to parse them, particularly the verbs. I began thinking to myself, ‘What is going on! He read the tesina, graded it and commended me on the insights. I knew going into the examination that I had more than 'passed' the tesina part of the examination.’ Then, in the midst of my thoughts, he pronounced, "You do not know the Greek and the conclusions are erroneous!" For a moment, I thought the ground beneath me shifted and I was floundering. There was an eerie silence in the room. I paused for a moment, collected myself and fired back that the translations were correct and I gave the reasons. After 10 minutes of retort that seemed an eternity, he looked at me with a smile and solemnly pronounced in German: "Gut gemacht (“Well done!"). As the examination ended, professors in the room went to my director – yes, my director – and told him “You have produced a fine student.” I stood there in amazement, grateful that it was all over but still wondering what had happened. An American professor came up to me and said, “You’re new to this, aren’t you? You see, Fr Eszer knew you had much and he pushed you to express it confidently and persuasively.”

Thus I offer one possible way of looking at this episode (would love to hear your take). Jesus truly knew the woman’s faith. Like another episode in the same Gospel involving foreign people, the Magi (Matthew 2) are presented as seekers who come to faith and do so in a bold way to travel “from the East” (in other words, so far East that these are super-Gentiles, super foreigners). No matter who the disciple or the person-coming-to-faith, Jesus will always challenge that faith so that the relationship may continue growing and maturing. There can never be anything static about the relationship called faith. Weak or strong, faith must grow and mature. For people like the Canaanite woman who certainly seems to ‘have her act together’ and appears as a very strong woman of faith, it takes more to push her in the way of maturity. As the masterful teacher and counselor, Jesus knew the limits to which He could push her. The fact that this woman is the ONLY person in Jesus’ Public Ministry who was able to spar with Him in such a witty way indicates to me that she knew Jesus was not using terms in a pejorative or demeaning way. She knew who she was in that Jewish world, an outsider - a dog, yet wasn't about to leave no matter what was said. Jesus' words are strong and appear startling to us. Each alleged 'jab' on the part of Jesus moves her to deeper resolve. Yes it looks as though Jesus is not 'nice' and seems downright cruel. But sit in a physical therapy room and watch a therapist stretch a knee or move an arm that has atrophied. The patient groans and complains but hangs in there with the knowledge that she or he is being pushed for the eventual goal of healing. The therapist knows how far to push, even though the patient (or observer) may think he or she cannot do it. Such were my own thoughts about a beloved mentor at a public examination until I learned what he was doing. Would I have liked a ‘nicer way?’ Sure. But I don’t think I would be in the ‘place’ where I am today.

‘Niceness’ at times can deceive and derail the challenge of the Gospel to embrace a mature faith. Human standards or perception of what constitutes being nice can ruffle feathers that are often fluffed by desires for complacency and comfort. The Gospel proclaimed, lived and embodied in Jesus is about His Father's Kingdom and its demanding way of living sustained by mature faith, not human perceptions or standards of 'niceness' that mask for "missing the mark" of Kingdom living.

Opening Prayer:
God our Father,
may we love You in all things
and above all things
and reach the joy You have prepared for us
beyond all our imagining.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
One God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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