An Important Encounter
by Rev. Joseph M. Rampino
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
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.
Few of Jesus' interactions with people in the Gospels are more jarring than the one presented us this week. We are used to Christ as the understanding, merciful one who supports and encourages the poor. So when he initially refuses the request of this woman in trouble, even as she cries out, "Lord, help me," we can be easily troubled.
Why does Jesus seem to push this woman away? Not only does he refuse her request initially, but he also does so on account of the fact that she is not a Jew. Some modern commentators will opine that in this moment, this woman's boldness opens the Lord's mind to the possibility of extending salvation to all the peoples of the world nd acknowledging the diversity of peoples. This opinion does not hold, given the fact of Christ's divinity, the unchanging nature of God's will and act of salvation, not to mention the interpretive witness of the earliest Christians regarding this passage. Something much more interesting than a supposed moment of "speaking truth to power" is happening here.
In fact, this moment is only one of many moments in which Jesus acts strangely for a teacher and religious leader. At many points in the gospels, he deliberately obscures his message behind parables, asks provocative questions that he does not answer, and allows confused or scandalized listeners to leave when they do not understand him. If Christ were just a teacher, conveying abstract moral information to his followers so that they could live good lives, or a salvation dispenser, providing healings and miracles like a traveling doctor with superpowers, his poor public relations would indeed be a fault, since for most teachers, it is the message that is important, more than their own personal identity.
In the case of Jesus, though, he himself is the message. He is what God the Father wishes us to meet and experience. What's more, the goal is not just to go back to our ordinary lives, slightly improved by the interaction, but to remain close to Christ, and follow him to our new home and new lives in heaven. Every teaching, every moral command, every healing of body or soul, is for the sake of making this life together with God possible for us.
Christianity is not a moral or therapeutic religion with rituals tacked on for fun. It is aimed at communion with God, which itself instructs, forms and heals as it deepens. Christ does not enter a difficult and uncomfortable conversation with this woman in the Gospels because he is ineffective, myopic, obtuse or narrow-minded. He does so to draw out of her a deeper act of belief in him, so that she will meet God in the healing of her daughter, and not only receive a good thing from God, as though he were providing a service.
This, then, is the question for us. How do we treat Christ and our Christianity? What role does Jesus play in our lives? Is he simply the one who gives us the general moral teachings that help make us nice people? Is he there simply to heal and provide for us when we are in need? Is our Christianity something that exists in the service of our daily lives and earthly happiness? Or do we meet Christ for his own sake, recognizing that he himself is the goal and fulfillment of our being? If we look to Jesus first, to his face, before the message or the powers or the healings, we will in fact find everything we need, and all the rest will come to us as the fruit of that most important encounter.