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Just When It Looks like Jesus Would Flunk Pastoral Care 101

Drouais Christ and the Canaanite Woman

Wikimedia Commons

Canonry of St. Leopold - published on 08/16/14

The Lord surprises and shows us the value of humility, faith, and love.

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As a seminarian on, let’s say, a summer pastoral assignment, if I had behaved the way the Lord did in this remarkable Gospel, I am pretty sure I would have been booted out unceremoniously! And if the Lord had been a seminarian, He might not have fared much better Himself. To be fair, though, His startling behavior isn’t at all what most of us think of as good pastoral care. It is, however, something far greater.

A poor woman comes up to Jesus, begging respectfully – “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!”  And she comes with a real problem, too – “My daughter is tormented by a demon.” How often the Lord had stopped before to help in situations just like this! But what’s His pastoral response now? Nothing. Not a word.

Now, the disciples don’t really help the situation much. They aren’t particularly happy about this woman following them around, so they ask the Lord to send her away. They’d probably have been kicked out of the seminary as well, I dare say. Have you ever noticed how often the disciples seem to get it all wrong? Hopefully, that’s something of a comfort to us; it is to me. After all, they did eventually turn out all right, well, except for one.

In response, the Lord does not exactly send her away, but His response is not very heartening; actually, it’s a bit snarky – “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” –  considering that she was a Canaanite, a pagan, an outsider.

And now we come to the little word on which this whole marvelous encounter turns, which lets us into the profound, confusing and beautiful mystery this Gospel allows us to glimpse: but. “But the woman came and did Jesus homage . . .”  But. Despite what He has just said (and what she herself knew would most likely be the case), despite His apparent rebuff, she comes back and calls out to Him: “Lord, help me.”

And now, because of this not-giving-up, this boldness even, an outward dialogue – a strange one to be sure – begins between them.  The Lord is still not going to get a good grade for conventional pastoral kindness: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”  Did good and gentle Jesus just call her, a poor woman who is begging His help, a dog?!? Yes, He did.  

A brief interlude: Does this make you a bit uncomfortable? Probably it does, and that’s a good thing. When we think we know what Jesus will do next, when we – however well-intentioned and even piously – place Him in a box, a category, and think we’ve figured Him out, when we are complacent in thinking we know who He is and what He’s doing, it is exactly then that we need a Gospel like this, which shakes us up, wakes us up to the glorious, if sometimes disquieting, reality that He is so much more than we can imagine.

The Gospel – and today’s is a great example of this – is meant, indeed, to comfort the afflicted; but, it’s also meant to afflict the comfortable, or better said, the complacent, those who think they’ve got it all figured out. The feeling of unsettling confusion and even perhaps dismay which this passage give us is like the shiver one gets after taking a spoonful of oddly-tasting medicine; it means it’s working.

And her next words – “Please, Lord, even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” – how do you imagine she spoke them? Cringing? Cowering? Groveling? I can’t imagine her saying these words without a sly, little smile and a glint in her eyes. Because she knew. She knew Him, in a way I only hope I can someday know Him. And she knew she’d got Him!

And then the love, the generosity, the caring (which we more easily recognize) burst out of the Lord as He praises her, the pagan (and in the eyes of all around them “only” a woman) and says:
“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Don’t you think Jesus let out a big, hearty laugh here? A great, joyous laugh at that fact that she – a foreigner, a pagan – got it, that she understood – had always understood – what was really going on in this meeting (and what the disciples – and we as well – did not understand), this loving (oh, yes!) meeting of two people who knew each other.

No, they had never met, never been introduced. But they knew each other deeply. How He knew her is clear: she, like all of us, was made in His image. But how she knew Him, now that’s interesting. She knew Him because of her awareness of her own need and total dependency and utter helplessness (we can call this humility, the one virtue we absolutely need if we want to know Jesus) and because of the love she had for her daughter.

So powerful, so real was this knowledge that she – without knowing anything of prophecy or even of the faith of Israel – was able to recognize Him, the one for whom her heart longed, the only savior. Would that our awareness of our own need for Him might be that strong! How much better we could recognize His presence and love, even when it seems, as in this Gospel, that they are missing.

While on the surface, this is an odd exchange between two people who couldn’t be farther apart – the King of Israel and a Canaanite woman – it is in truth the loving and playful encounter, a great and elaborate dance of two people who know each other profoundly and whose dialogue – beyond words – began long before this moment we are privileged to witness and continues for ever.  I can see the Lord and the Canaanite woman – the woman of great faith, a faith that recognized Him when He seemed to hide His loving face – laughing together in the Kingdom.

As we begin to be able to perceive what’s really happening in this encounter, with all its surprise and mystery, we begin to experience the unpredictable (but ever faithful) love of God in a new way, so that we, too, might learn to love and recognize Him as the Canaanite woman did.

Prepared for Aleteia by the Canonry of Saint Leopold. Click here to learn more about the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.

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