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Widening the circle

He wouldn't have gotten away with it in our day. How could Jesus call that woman a dog?

Of all the snapshots of Jesus the Gospels give us, his encounter with the Canaanite woman is one many of us would like to rip from the scrapbook. What was he thinking? How did that poor mother feel? What was he teaching his disciples? What kind of fodder was he feeding his enemies?

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20th Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Psalm 67
Romans 11: 13-15, 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28

Let's take it from the vantage point of the disciples. If they had already seen him conversing one noon with that Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), they probably didn't trust him to react "normally" to this situation. What did they think of that crazed foreign woman ranting after them asking Jesus for a miracle? The answer to that last question is pretty clear. They wanted him to get rid of her.

Have you noted that in the first half of the story, the woman is crying out but nobody responds to her? The disciples complain about her to Jesus, and he answers them. The woman is like a backdrop to their conversation, and Jesus seems to share the opinion that is precisely where she belongs. She's not a lost sheep.

But she won't have it. Stepping out of the sidelines, she drops to her knees directly in front of him (you can almost see her grabbing his legs or, more modestly, blocking his path). She looks him in the face and calls on him as the Lord who has the power to alter the tragedy of her life. That should leave the disciples even more agitated than before. Where does she get off thrusting herself into their path and calling him Lord? What's it to her that he's the Son of David? That's their sacred language, and this pagan fanatic has no right to use it.

Then comes the clincher: The gentle Jesus declares that dogs don't have a right to the children's food. Even if the word he used was "puppy" rather than dog, how could he look her in the face and say that? Or perhaps he wasn't looking at her.

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If Jesus was looking at the disciples as he spoke, he surely pleased them. His statement vindicated their sense of superiority over the pagans. It assured them that the community should maintain strict boundaries and that not just anyone could make a claim on their God.

If, on the other hand, Jesus was addressing himself to the woman, he gave her the perfect opening for a priceless debate. He made reference to the extended family of Israel while she was pleading for her own flesh and blood. In her situation, all rules of religious or ethnic propriety were meaningless. She took his opening gambit and one-upped him in the game. If she didn't have a claim to a place at the table, there was surely no rule against gleaning what would be otherwise wasted. My guess is that Jesus laughed out loud as he heard her retort.

The disciples must have been absolutely astounded. They were not used to seeing someone banter and get the better of Jesus. They hardly expected Jesus to rejoice in her comeback, but he not only rejoiced, he held her up as an example of great faith.

Once again, Jesus pulled it off. Allowing this persistent woman to be his foil in a living parable, Jesus led the disciples and bystanders up the path to confronting their own prejudices and restricted conceptions of God's mercy.

Lest we relax comfortably, enjoying our vantage on the disciples' comeuppance, today's readings challenge us to take a hard look at our own situation in the light of the Word. Isaiah's oracle (56:1-7) was set up to offend the orthodox. Going against what the law taught about who should be excluded from offering sacrifice (Deuteronomy 23:2-4), Isaiah declares that God's only criteria for ministry is that the person desire it, love God's name and prove their sincerity through worship validated in a just lifestyle. Paul tells the Romans that God can work through every human intransigency; the gentile Christians are a blessing that can rebound to the Jews. Jesus' interaction with the Canaanite woman reminds us that every one of our prejudices needs to be exposed and transformed.

As we go through the coming week, we would do well to remember these readings, allowing them to work as attitude adjusters for us. They challenge us to become aware of our own narrowness and desire for one-upmanship so that we may abandon them and learn what it means that God's love and mercy knows no limits.

[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA, a charitable foundation that supports work with people with disabilities in Ecuador.]

This story appeared in the Aug 1-14, 2014 print issue under the headline: Widening the circle .

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