Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 56:1, 6-7; PS 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8; ROM 11: 13-15, 20-32; MT 15: 21-28.
"Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon." Those are the words addressed to Jesus in today's gospel reading. They come from a woman whom the evangelist, Matthew, remembers as "Syrophonecian".
An uncharacteristically narrow-minded Jesus has his own name for the woman and her daughter. He calls them "dogs" -- b_tches, really. That's the term for female dogs, isn't it?
We'll come back to that in a moment.
For now, note that "Syrophonecian" meant the woman was not a Jew. She was a native or inhabitant of Phoenicia when it was part of the Roman province of Syria. She was living near the twin cities of Tyre and Sidon -- a gentile or non-Jewish region of the Fertile Crescent where Matthew takes trouble to locate today's episode. That would have made Jesus' petitioner what we call a "Palestinian" today.
No doubt you're surprised at Jesus' rough and disrespectful language towards the woman and her child. I am.
As I said, at first he gives no reply at all; he ignores the two females completely. If Matthew's account is accurate, in his silence Jesus showed himself to be captive to his own cultural norms. It was inconceivable in Hellenistic antiquity for a strange woman to directly approach a man the way the woman in this story did. Above all, it was so for a non-Jewish woman to directly address a Jewish man. In other words, Jesus' silence shows him a captive to his patriarchal "honor culture."
But then, as I said, it gets worse. When the woman insists, Jesus implicitly at least uses that term that women find so offensive. He says, "I have been sent for the lost children of Israel ... it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to a pair of b_tches."
Is that a sneer I see on Jesus' face?
In any case, the reply seems out of character for Jesus. In fact, such dissonance has led many scholars to reject the saying as inauthentic -- or as though Jesus were only pretending to be hard to test the woman's faith. Whatever the case, Jesus' words only echo the rabbinic saying of the time, "He who eats with idolaters is like one who eats with a dog."
Can't get much more chauvinist than that, can you? Foreigners' religions are nothing but "idolatry." Foreigners themselves are filthy animals.
Do you know anybody that thinks like that? I mean, we still haven't outgrown such narrowness, and disrespect any more than this stony Jesus apparently had.
But then the woman disarms the Master completely, even as he turns his back on her. Listen to her words. Unfazed in her desperation before this peasant faith healer, she blurts out, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."
We can almost see Jesus stop in his tracks. He shakes his head ruefully and turns back. We can almost hear him stifle a laugh as he exclaims, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."