20th Sunday in Ordinary time

Where to start with the week we’ve had? Perhaps with the 70th anniversary of the Partition of India, the final act of the enlightened British rule that led to mass migration, a million people killed, and the hostility between India and Pakistan lasting for all those years. Then we had a clash in Charlottesville, USA between white supremacists and those who opposed such views. It ended badly with a young woman dead and a number of people injured, not to mention the turmoil it caused in the American politics. Then on Thursday night we had terrorist attacks in Spain, when innocent people were mown down just for not adhering to the twisted, marginal Islamist ideology. Those three sad events, though separated by time and distance, have one thing in common: the driving force was the hatred of people for their dissimilarity. Sadly, those three incidents weren’t uncommon. Tribalism holds tight across the globe, sometimes erupting into full-scale violence; but it’s no less hurtful on a daily basis. Think about Brexit…

The narrative of the biblical Old Testament is mainly about being the Chosen People, separate from other nations and superior to them. Other nations were slaughtered in the name of God, enslaved or fought against. Any foreign dominance was considered to be God’s punishment for perceived unfaithfulness of the people of Israel. Their ultimate humiliation came upon them when they were conquered by their powerful neighbours, followed by their deportation to Babylon. On their return several decades later, the people of Israel didn’t have enough political or military power to regain the upper hand over their pagan neighbours. So, they separated themselves culturally from the pagans and treated them as inferior, deserving nothing more than utter contempt. Those nations paid back with equal derision. Such are the circumstances of the story told in today’s gospel.

A pagan woman cries for help to Jesus, who doesn’t respond at all. She’s a pagan, and she’s a woman – two ‘good’ reasons to ignore her completely. Jesus’ companions must be delighted to see him behaving as would have been expected from a pure-blood Jewish rabbi. But their glee doesn’t last long; the woman follows them and keeps crying out for help. Suddenly they ask Jesus to help her: ‘Give her what she wants.’ You may think it’s very noble of them to plead on behalf of a pagan woman. That’s until they explain why they are doing so: it’s ‘because she is shouting after us.’ So, they are driven solely by their personal discomfort. They aren’t really bothered about her personal problems; they just want to get rid of her.

Jesus’ attitude comes as a nasty surprise to us. Firstly, he rejects his companions’ plea: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’ Then his direct response to the woman’s request is insulting: ‘It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.’ In our dogs-and-cats loving society it may not sound particularly harsh. But in many cultures calling people ‘dogs’ is derogatory and deeply insulting. In this situation Jesus seems to behave like a poster-boy for supremacists, be they Jewish, or Christian, or any other self-identifying group that attempts to invoke the Bible in support of their case. How to reconcile Jesus’ message of love, even towards one’s enemies, with such an apparently nasty, heartless attitude of his?

The answer is that Jesus didn’t confront the woman, but his followers’ deeply-rooted sense of superiority. I imagine Jesus discreetly watching the Apostles when the woman started begging for help. Perhaps he noticed disgust on their faces. When they eventually pleaded with Jesus to give her what she wanted, his reply of being sent to lost sheep of Israel was highly sarcastic. Similarly sarcastic was Jesus’ answer to the woman – but that sarcasm was again directed at his disciples, not at the woman. Her brilliant answer, and Jesus’ high praise of her faith, was a lesson hard for them to swallow. Their overblown sense of superiority was punctured. To Jesus she was an individual in need, regardless of her nationality or gender. That was a lesson for the Apostles; and that’s a lesson for each and every one of us.


Photo by Michal Jarmoluk