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Man’s best friend

Gospel commentary Mt 15:21-28

It is healthy to remember that God is great and powerful and that, in that way, He is different from us and therefore also distant. We also know that by knowing Jesus, God is close to us and invites us to be close to Him. Mysterious, for sure, and challenging.

The woman in this Sunday's passage is not of the house of Israel and, therefore, as an outsider, is not the focus of the missionary outreach of this particular journey of Jesus and His disciples. The disciples are bothered by her persistent pleas for help for her afflicted daughter at home. Have they crossed over into Gentile territory to enjoy a respite from the growing crowds flocking to see Jesus? Has He promised them this break? Are they like priests on their day off, wondering how it is they've been caught in the office just because they stepped in to grab the golf store gift card? To end the inconvenience, the disciples ask Jesus to send her away.

Up to this point Jesus has not shown any willingness to help the woman. But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. He seems to reinforce the need to maintain their mission focus when He tells the pestered disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” No doubt the disciples love this answer, thinking “then send her away so we can have some peace and quiet.” Their hopefulness is short-lived as the woman, undoubtedly listening in, breaks into their discussion, falls at His feet, and begs again for help.

Jesus’ response is one that can be hard to read and to proclaim because it seems harsh. Pastors and their vicars aren't taught to use this kind of language with the people who come to them for help: It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs. The only access we have to hearing the tone of voice Jesus uses here is by praying this passage. In a meditation on this moment we can learn from the faithful response of this woman who seems to know instinctively that she's not actually an outsider. The wit and logic with which she extends the image Jesus has used shows a depth of confident understanding. She wins His heart and brings about the immediate healing of her daughter at home.

The ready response the woman gives accepts what Jesus says but adds to it. In effect she says, “Yes, you must feed the children first but you and I know that they will not eat everything. I will find sufficient nourishment in what they let fall on the floor. You need not throw anything to me and the other dogs; there is enough for the children and for us.” It is quick thinking on her part, a response borne from her need but also from her firm belief that He can help — and that He will help. She won’t take no for an answer, that’s why she turns His “no” into a “yes.”

We can imagine other possible responses to the way Jesus implies that the woman and her daughter are counted at the level of dogs. If she were a prideful person, less humble, she might have left His presence in anger. Instead she sees past this seeming slight to an opening, which she gladly takes. Something in the tone of Jesus or in His manner as He spoke (maybe in His eyes?) confirmed her conviction that He really was ready to help her. Scholars of the original Scripture languages say that the word He used for dogs was a word conveying little dogs. Certainly this choice of words might have signaled to her that she should push through His “negative” response to highlight the soon-to-be revealed truth that He came for the benefit of everyone, Gentiles included.

In the countless instances of little dogs waiting anxiously around tables at mealtime there has been an exchange occurring that is only sometimes accidental on the part of the ones seated at table. Many children have been known to sneak morsels of food (to share kindly or to avoid eating) to their “best friends” down below. Who knew they were participating in something that man’s actual “Best Friend” would use to reveal to us, through a woman’s strong and ready faith, that there is enough for everyone, even the ones previously left outside?

Fr. Zuberbueler is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017