by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Lord,” the woman said, “help me.” Jesus replied: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs.” She retorted: “Ah yes, Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.” Matthew 15, 21-28

In one way or another, all three of today’s readings raise the question of how we relate to people whose religious practice is different from ours. While Isaiah proclaims that Israel will become a “house of prayer” for all nations, it is clear that foreigners will be welcome on condition that they leave behind their own religious practices, and accept Israel’s traditions.

In the second reading, Paul laments the fact that the Jews with whom he had previously worshipped in the synagogue have not come to share his convictions about Jesus. His hope is that his reaching out to the Gentiles will make his fellow Jews jealous, especially when they realize the worth of the message the Gentiles are receiving. However, he does concede that God’s mercy, so prominent in the life and message of Jesus, will eventually be welcomed by his fellow Jews.

The encouraging thing about the gospel reading is that it contains a reluctant admission by Jesus that great faith can be found beyond the religion in which he grew up. It took the persistence and faith of a despised Canaanite, and a woman, to boot, to bring him rather begrudgingly to acknowledge that his ministry was not confined to the Jewish people. This story held a special significance for Matthew’s community, which was predominantly a Gentile one, even though it was a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles. Matthew was surely using it as a model for bringing together those who had come from different religious traditions.

The encouraging aspect of all three readings is that they contain no directions as to how those from different religious traditions are to go about relating to one another as they make the transition from one tradition to another. That leaves the way open to discuss their differences and to discover for themselves how to come to a shared way of living in harmony and with integrity, as they pursue their way to God.

All this has some relevance for us who belong to a Church that has not always been at ease with other faiths and religions. However, one of the less known documents of Vatican II, The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, (# 2), offers some guidance for us: “The Church, therefore, urges her children to converse and collaborate with the followers of other religions in order to preserve, indeed to advance, those spiritual and moral goods as well as those socio-cultural values that have a home among people of other religious traditions.”

We are urged to acknowledge, learn from and engage with Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Mormons, Moonies and Jehovah’s Witnesses. And without setting out to convert them to our way of living, thinking and worshipping! It takes big-mindedness and big-heartedness on our part to be secure in living our own Catholic faith and, at the same time, to look for what is good in those who are different.

Now, for a closer look at today’s gospel. The woman at the centre of the story knows that she is a despised outsider. The disciples immediately see her as a nuisance. They are disturbed by her loud and vulgar yelling, and by her persistence. They want Jesus to send her about her business. Yet it turns out that Jesus is the one who ends up being disturbed. He acknowledges that he sees his mission to the Jews, and nobody else: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Initially, she had called out: “Hey, Jew (Son of David), what about showing some mercy to the likes of me?” Moreover, she’s not going to be put off. She comes back by dropping the reference to their ethnic difference, and addresses Jesus more politely: “Lord, help me.” Effectively, she appeals to Jesus to set aside name-calling and racial slurs. Pushed off balance, Jesus continues to play the race card, referring to the woman as a “dog”, an insult commonly used by Jews for foreigners and outsiders. Here, it is important to note that Jews did not allow dogs into their houses. Scraps from the meal table were picked up and thrown outside to any waiting dogs. Jesus asks her if she wants him to get up, take food that was intended only for Jews, and throw it to an outsider like her. However her quick-wittedness catches Jesus off guard. In a flash, she comes back with: “Please, Lord, for even dogs (like me) eat the scraps that fall from the tables of their masters.” And Jesus admits defeat. He acknowledges the woman’s faith, but, more than that, he knows that she has taught him to let go of his narrowness, and to accept that his mission is to all people, irrespective of their race, colour or religion.

What drove this Canaanite woman to risk rejection and scorn was the fact that she was the mother of a tormented girl. Her love for her daughter and her conviction that the girl needed to be spared a life-time of prejudice and rejection moved this mother to risk all. Ethnic division was just not going to stop her. If this Jewish rabbi was as good as the reputation that preceded him, she was not going to let her opportunity pass her by, she was going to call him to account. This woman is every mother who is determined to protect her children from whatever can destroy their lives. There is something of the tigress in her. She will stop at nothing to ensure that those she loves are not harmed, neglected or led astray. She is a model of fierce determination, boundless love and hope that will never say die. The risk of humiliation and personal rejection is as nothing to her as she seeks to find a better future for the love of her life. She is an inspiration for every parent and teacher, for every guide and mentor who has a passion for justice, fairness and compassion.

She is an exceptional woman who stopped Jesus in his tracks and expanded his understanding of his mission in the world. There is nobody in all of the Gospels quite like her. She is a model for us all.