“Jesus went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon”. We have heard these words proclaimed in today’s Gospel. The geographic location of today’s Gospel story is key to understanding Jesus’ message.
Although “Tyre and Sidon” had a significant Jewish population, they were considered “pagan” districts. The woman he meets is a “Canaanite”. She is a non- believer, a non- Jew. She does not hold to the same beliefs, traditions and practices as Jesus. Furthermore, she belongs to a different race and ethnic background than Jesus. Usually, a devout Jew would have avoided such a woman.
She begs Jesus for a healing for her daughter. At first, Jesus ignores her.
But she persists, and a conversation takes place between them.
In that conversation, Jesus refers to the woman as a dog; the woman also refers to herself as a dog. Both Jesus and the woman are playing along with the racial insults and slurs that were prevalent at the time. Jesus is not a racist, but he is mimicking the common racist attitudes, vocabulary and behaviour as a springboard to proclaim a new way of thinking, saying and doing.
Both Jesus and the woman use table imagery to make their points. Jesus begins by using the example of a family at the dinner table to explain his rationale for not helping her. A family will always feed the children first. It would be ridiculous to take the food of the children and give it to the dogs.
No loving parent would do that. The consequence of such an action would be that the children would starve.
By using this example, Jesus is saying: “My ministry is to my own people first”. “My priority is to look after my fellow Jews”.
I think we can all relate to this. It is true. We are called to minister to people who have the same religion, the same nationality, the same language, the same race, the same ethnic background and the same culture as us. For example, in my case, I ought to be of service to my fellow Catholics, fellow Canadians, fellow English-speaking neighbors, fellow Caucasian community members. All this is necessary and good.
But the woman responds using the same example of a family at the dinner table. Yes, the children eat first, but then their leftover food is given to the dogs under the table. This was and still is a common practice. Her answer is a very logical one.
By using this example, the woman is acknowledging Jesus’ power. Throughout the conversation notice this woman’s posture: “she knelt before him, saying ‘Lord, help me’”. The strength of her belief and trust in Jesus shows itself. Jesus praises her deep faith. In the end, he cures her afflicted daughter.
By healing her daughter, Jesus is saying: “I have come to invite every person to have faith in me. I have come to invite every person to follow me. I have come to invite every person I meet to be a disciple.” “I am God’s instrument of healing for all peoples.” “I am called to minister to the whole world”.
The point of all this is that each of us has a specific religious identity. It is important to be faithful and true to that religious identity. But Jesus is modelling for us how to respond when we meet someone from a different country, a different religion, a different race, a different language, a different ethnic background or a different culture.
Jesus is saying that, beyond our specific religious identity and denomination, we, too, are called to be God’s instruments before all people. To use the vocabulary of today’s Responsorial Psalm, all people, regardless of faith or religious denomination, are part of God’s flock. As Pope Francis often reminds us: “The true Christian builds bridges, not walls”.
Each of us is sent out to minister to every person we meet, regardless of faith, religion, language, race, ethnic background or culture. For example, in my case, I am called to serve non- Catholics, non- Christians, non- Canadians, non- Caucasians and non-English speaking people. God has put each person that we meet in our path. Likewise, God has put us in the path of each person we encounter.
Our call is to be Jesus’ instruments of love, care and compassion to all we meet. Jesus excluded no one from his love. We are encouraged to do the same in 2020. Our ministry is to respond in generous service to all those in need (to the extent that we are able). Most of all, like Jesus in today’s Gospel, we are to have a special commitment to the sick and afflicted, regardless of external qualities like religion.
As we grow in faith, our vision of discipleship matures. The invitation of today’s Gospel is to become more expansive, more open in our thinking and doing. Who we consider as brother, sister, family ought to be more inclusive.
Every person we meet in our daily living is a brother or sister. Every person is a child of God. We are all members of God’s family. There are no exceptions.
“Jesus went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon”. These words contain a powerful message for us today. As our Eucharist continues, let us ask God for the courage strength, perseverance and grace to imitate Jesus’ example in treating people who are different from us.
Deacon Roland Muzzatti
August 5, 2020