by Father Thomas Catania
SOME OF YOU, like me, may have been born under the sign of the “crab,” in late June through mid-July. I know this makes us “water people,” but I do not know whether it makes us crabby. I do know that summer’s heat and humidity can bring out the crab in all of us; it is no surprise that tempers fray more quickly when the body is made to come with temperatures that read like a bright child’s report card and with air that steams like the back room of the dry cleaners.
Perhaps it was on just such a day that the Canaanite woman of the story today approached Jesus and the Twelve; her request for a healing seems reasonable — after all, Jesus was known as a worker of wonders even among non-Jews of the area (think of the centurion who came about his servant).
But the disciples’ reply is crabby: “Get rid of her!” It’s unclear whether “getting rid of her” will entail granting her request; all they want is for her to pipe down. Jesus’ response, however, is more than cause for pause. It’s just this side of scandalous.
Few incidents in the Gospel present Jesus in a dim light. The Risen Lord, the real hero of the Gospel tales, shines in the splendor of God’s light and there is no dimming that — not with the shadow of death, and surely not with the shadow of crabbiness. But hear Him: first “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (And this is true enough of the “historical Jesus,” the One whom historians can trace; as far as we can tell, His short ministry remained within the confines of Palestine and His self-understanding was that of an end-time prophet, a herald of the coming of Yahweh to bring on a new age: devout Jew that he was, He wanted His own to be gathered in the favored flock when the new age dawned.)
But He goes further; indeed, He seems to cross the line of decency when He says, “it is not right to take the food of sons and daughters and give it to the dogs.” The dogs, if you please! Looking at her in the eye as she pleads for herself and for her little girl, He calls her a “dog.” I will not translate further.
But, undeterred, she goes on pleading. And, in a trice, “her daughter got better.”
Now the gospel writers are teachers/preachers of a theology of Jesus, an interpretation of His meaning as the Risen One they believe in; all the episodes are designed to point the hearer to that Risen Lord, who alone is the object of believers’ faith. So we expect the glory of the Risen One to shine through all the episodes in the Gospels and, when we find one that appears to tarnish that glory, scholars attribute its presence to its inability to be denied — like Jesus being baptized by John, who came with a “baptism of repentance.”
Surely Jesus did not need to repent, so the story must have been preserved because (quite apart from what the evangelists make of it) Jesus actually did at one point in history go to John. And His going was well known, because there He met some of those who would leave John and become Jesus-people — Peter and Andrew and the like (See Acts 1:21-22). It would seem that this story fits the same mold. The Risen One wouldn’t call anyone a “dog,” so the historical Jesus must have, and the incident was too widely known to have been written out of the narrative. But it turns out this is not so, perhaps much to the good of the reputation of the historical Jesus.
The story marks a turning point in the Gospel narrative where it is found (Mark and Matthew): from this time on, a ministry to non-Jews becomes evident. But it is not the ministry of the historical Jesus that is being described, so much as it is the outreach of the later “Jesus-people” (think of Paul!), who only gradually, through the persistence of goyim like this Canaanite (uglier word than Mark’s “Syrophoenician,” given the ancient experience of Israel and the Cananites), came to reach out to those “dogs,” the “unclean foreigners,” whom yet Isaiah had dared to dream would eventually come to God’s “holy mountain” and “rejoice in [his] house of prayer.” Paul, who “glor[ies] in his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles,” was a pioneer here, daring the Jesus-movement, in its earliest years a strictly Jewish sect, to “think outside the box” and welcome Gentiles into the covenant flock. The shape of the Church of today is universal because of what this “Canaanite dog” and her faith represent, and how the earliest missionaries (even if uncertainly) took steps to bring that faith to a fullness.
Quite apart from the crabbiness in the tale, it’s a tale for our times. Refreshing hearts overheated with burdens (and yes, demons of today’s kind) remains the work of the people of God. Like the earliest ones, we may disdain to welcome the “dogs” of our imagining.
We may think of missionary outreach as the work of people in remote continents, if we think of missionary work at all. But it takes place in Cobble Hill and Richmond Hill, in Borough Park and Rego Park. It is the call of the spiritually needy to the men and women (us!), who are the face of the Risen One in this place and time. That we might, in impatience, overwhelmed at the task, say, “Go away and don’t bother us,” is anticipated in Matthew’s story. That the cry of faith would speak to the Spirit in us and lead us to turn in the footsteps of Paul is the hope of Matthew, and finally, of the Risen Lord.
Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 56: 1, 6-7
Romans 11: 13-15, 29-32
Matthew 15: 21-28
Father Catania is an English professor at Molloy College, Rockville Centre, and an assistant at Holy Child Jesus parish, Richmond Hill.