By Benedict Augustine
“It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
Many kind-hearted people wince at this episode where Jesus challenges a woman in need of His help. Unlike other instances where Jesus gladly cures and forgives others, He holds back for this particular woman, not because she is rude or sinful, but because she isn’t a Jew. He first states that the scope of His mission only concerns the House of Israel, not those who reside outside that house. When she pleads further, He then compares her to a dog, probably one of the most severe terms of abuse recorded in the gospel.
Some might feel relieved that Jesus relents and heals her daughter, yet one might still wonder why Jesus said those things in the first place if He intended to heal the woman anyway. It seems like he’s making fun of her and even desires to humiliate her before doing anything. If that’s the case, Jesus is being far from magnanimous; he’s being rather petty.
The key to understanding this event are Jesus’ final words, “O Woman, great is your faith!” As with many of His miracles, He hopes to use this one to teach a lesson; in this case, the lesson is the true nature of faith. Notice that He does not reward the woman for her wit in taking His analogy and working it in her favor—even if many Christians afterward will chuckle at her chutzpah—but for her persistence and humility. He questions her rather sharply, and sheresponds with proportionate trust in Him.
Faith means more than mere belief. It signifies a deep trust, making it a much more complex idea.Trust is active: one does not simply trust another person only to ignore them later; they usually trusthim to do something. Trust also implies dependence since one who trusts depends on the fact that the other is true and that he cares. Consequently, the active dependence brought about by faith humbles the person who has it. A person who has real faith in Jesus must admit: I trust that You are the Son of God. I trust that You will help me. I trust in Your love, and I know that I am not enough without it.
Imagine if that woman approached Jesus with the typical sense of entitlement felt by people today. In a good skeptical fashion, she could have demanded, “Prove to me that you are who you say you are. Cure my daughter!” Or, she could have retorted to Jesus’ words about feeding the children, not the dogs: “How dare you! I deserve more respect than that. I will go consult the oracles at Delphi. At least they won’t compare me to a dog.” In either of these scenarios, the woman does not have faith, but contempt, and only wants to use Jesus—and by extension, use her daughter as a means of testingHim. Additionally, she remains proud and unchanged, and her daughter would remain possessed.
Rather than enabling His people, God wants their faith, their trust. He has something immensely important to give, His love, and He will not force them to take it, nor will he let them snatch it ungratefully like dogs or pigs. If people complain to God, either doubting His love or feeling entitled to it, they rightly incur His punishment. Gratitude, humility, faith, and love are the ways to respond, like the Samaritan woman and not like the craven Israelites who fear the men more than they fear God Who had saved (and punished) them so many times.
God’s unhappiness with people’s faithlessness offers another lesson, a lesson that’s constantly overlooked by people of faith: Don’t feed people’s egos by coddling their lack of faith. Many people, believers and nonbelievers alike, bring their complaints to the Church, often calling for change in everything but themselves. They callously blame God, the Church, and Christians for all their ills, and then demand respect and welcome in return.
In their misguided attempts to share the gospel, many Christians are completely willing to agree and comply with these angry people, hoping to open “dialogues” and “adapt with the times.” They refrain from criticism, praise their “honesty,” and foolishly invite these people to church with them on Sunday. These people might support abortion and organ harvesting, might equate Christianity with bigotry, and might care more about one unfortunate lion illegally hunted than thousands of innocenthuman beings being crucified and sold into slavery.
Is that what Jesus would do, or His Father? The former would denounce such hypocrisy and make sure no one follows their false teachings, and the latter would send a host of horrible things (plague, pillagers, earthquakes, or, as shown in the readings yesterday, sudden leprosy). They would save those who desired saving, and wait for the rest to repent.
Disciples must approach Christ and His Church as children, not dogs. He does not want blind faith or complacent doubting. He wants virtuous obedience and love. When He says that the children must be fed, that means tending to the faithful first.
As Mother Teresa says, “Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do…but how much love we put into that action.” Instead reaching out to those outside the Church, those who spurn our invitations, we should nourish those inside the Church who seriously need it. Only then will others start changing their attitude and approach the Church, Christ’s Body, as the Canaanite woman approached Jesus with her daughter.