The Gospel story from this past Sunday (August 16) has some remarkable elements. The dialogue between Jesus and the woman is unlike anything else in the New Testament. Listen again:
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.
Of all the Gospel stories, this one causes the most difficulty for some people. Does the gentle Jesus seem unsympathetic and dismissive of this mother’s need and plea? At best, we might say that he offers her a test. That attitude of the Lord warrants consideration, but in this reflection, let me concentrate upon the woman who seeks his attention.
We recognize that this petitioner has certain immediate disadvantages. First of all, she is a woman in a time that highlighted men, a patriarchal society; secondly, she is a gentile, a non-Jew. Yet, this gentile woman comes before the Lord to beg healing for her daughter, not for herself. Love drives her, not personal need. The disciples feel justified in attempting to send her away. She is unfazed.
She humbles herself before the Lord to present her plea. She responds to his seeming rebuff with humility and wisdom. Jesus tells her “it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She answers that even the dogs have a right to the scraps. Is there anyone else in the Gospels that matches Jesus in such dialogue? Jesus hears her words and changes his decision. She receives the healing that she sought for her daughter. She has approached the Lord for the needs of this child whom she loves, and she will not be denied. And she is not denied.
Bringing the needs of another to Jesus has a central place within our charism. When we approach the Lord on our knees, our words should include those who are poor. The needs of those whom we serve and to whom we minister can/should take pride of place. We listen to them, seek to respond in the best way that we can, and then bring their needs to the Lord in prayer.
I love the way in which Vincent admonishes himself—and us—regarding the responsibility to remember the needy among us:
“Wretched man, have you earned the bread you’re about to eat, that bread that comes to you from the labor of the poor? If we don’t earn it like them, at least let’s pray for their needs. . . . We’re like Moses and must continually raise our hands to heaven for them.” (VdP, CCD 11:125, pp. 190-191)
Our Gospel story emphasizes the power of love. Within the Scriptures, the passages that speak of God’s love are numerous, as are those that celebrate human love. How one gains the Kingdom of God receives confirmation in the twofold directive: love God and love each other. When we tell the story of our lives in the presence of the Divine, he will listen to how well we paid attention to this simplified catechism. Joined to our love of him will be our tales of how we cherished his beloved children, how we served them and how we prayed for them. In a particular way, we bring our marginalized brothers and sisters to the Lord.