Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 56:1, 6-7; PS 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8; ROM 11: 13-15, 20-32; MT 15: 21-28. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/081714.cfm
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Those are the words that a woman remembered as “Syrophonecian” addressed to Jesus in today’s gospel reading.
Jesus responds by ignoring the woman at first and then by disrespectfully associating his petitioner with dogs – almost calling her a “b_tch.”
We’ll come back to that in a moment.
For now note that “Syrophonecian” meant the woman was not a Jew. She was a native or inhabitant of Phoenicia when it was part of the Roman province of Syria. She was living near the twin cities of Tyre and Sidon – a gentile or non-Jewish region of the Fertile Crescent where Matthew takes trouble to locate today’s episode.
That would have made Jesus’ petitioner what we call a “Palestinian” today. In other words, Matthew’s geographical note serves to remind us that the Jews never controlled all of their “Promised Land.” Instead, they always had to share it with “Palestinians” including Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, Geshurites, Maacaathites, and Philistines.
That in itself is significant in the light of Israel’s ongoing brutal war of extermination against Palestinians. There the State of Israel (with supporters often invoking biblical precedent) has adopted the one-state position that is bent claiming all of Palestine for itself. It relegates Palestinians to Bantustans in a particularly brutal Israeli version of apartheid and ethnic cleansing.
Were Jesus in Gaza today, millions of Palestinian parents could echo the poor mother’s petition in today’s’ gospel selection, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” And the demon in Gaza’s case would be the State of Israel itself – the latest incarnation of the puppets of Empire whom Jesus opposed so strongly in his own day. [Recall that Palestine in Jesus day was controlled by Jewish puppets of Rome. (Jesus clashed with them again and again.) Today those who pull strings on the marionettes reside in Washington.]
The result is that in Gaza over the last five weeks, more than 2000 Palestinians have been slaughtered by the ones considering themselves God’s “chosen” – 25% of the victims being children, at least another 25%, women like the one called “Syrophoenician” and her demon-possessed daughter.
Daniel Ortega, the President of Nicaragua, recently applied the term “demon” appropriately. He said, “Prime Minister Netanyahu appears to be possessed by the devil, he needs Pope Francis to exorcise it, to become appeased.” Ortega wondered, “Why doesn’t anyone condemn or sanction the state of Israel?” In his opinion, Palestine is the victim of “madness” on the part of the Israeli leader, who seeks to “annihilate the Palestinian people.” Ortega meant that Israel is “committing genocide” in the Gaza Strip, a crime so “terrible that it is only comparable to the crimes of the Nazis,” he said.
You might have been surprised at Jesus’ response to the Syrophonecian woman. As I said, at first he gives no reply at all; he ignores the woman completely. If Matthew’s account is accurate, in his silence Jesus was showing himself to be captive to his own cultural norms. It was inconceivable in Hellenistic antiquity for a strange woman to directly approach a man the way the woman in this story did. Above all was it so for a gentile woman to directly address a Jewish man. In other words, Jesus’ silence was part of his “honor culture.”
But it gets worse. When the woman insists, Jesus implicitly calls her a “b_tch.” He says, “I have been sent for the lost children of Israel . . . it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
The reply seems out of character for Jesus, doesn’t it? In fact, such dissonance has led many to reject the saying as inauthentic. Whatever the case, Jesus’ reply only echoes the rabbinic saying of the time, “He who eats with idolaters is like one who eats with a dog.”
In other words, Jesus’ comparison stands in a long line of likening cultural outsiders to animals. Most recently, in the case of Gaza, Ayelet Shaked, a member of the Israeli Parliament, compared Palestinians like the woman in today’s gospel to snakes. She endorsed the killing of Palestinian women, like the petitioner in the story before us, calling their children not dogs, but “little snakes” worthy only of extermination.
“Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”
The woman in today’s gospel has a very different voice from Ayelet Shaked’s. She replies, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
The witty reply astonishes Jesus. He exclaims, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” That is, the woman “converts” Jesus; he concedes her argument. The one the gospels present as the master of verbal riposte is vanquished by this simple Palestinian mom.
What does the interaction between Jesus and the woman called “Syrophonecian” mean for us today – in the context of Israel’s demonic attack on the Palestinian descendants of the woman in question? What does it mean for Gaza and for us who watch in helpless disgust?
I think it means that:
• The “faith” of the Syrophoenician woman was not “in Jesus” as the incarnation of God, but rather in the inclusivity of God’s love that extends beyond ethnic and religious differences.
• In that sense, she believed in the New Universal Order Jesus referred to as God’s Kingdom.
• More specifically, today’s gospel reading presents the woman as enlightening Jesus – as reminding him of the Kingdom’s complete inclusivity.
• In view of Jesus’ own “enlightenment” at the hands of this poor Palestinian woman, it is no longer possible to blindly identify “God’s People” with any particular state.
• I mean, the State of Israel as such does not represent the biblical God’s Chosen People.
• Today that honor (curse?) belongs to the Palestinians who, as good Muslims, share Jesus’ faith that God sides with the widows, orphans, immigrants and oppressed whatever nation they belong to.
• This means that in the case of Palestine, Jesus’ followers should be one the side of Palestinians rather than the Jewish State.
• Being on their side means petitioning the U.S. government to stop its demonic support of Israel which has moved even further from its identity as “People of God” than it had in Jesus’ day.
As always, this week’s readings invite us to break the chains of our cultural norms – just as Jesus was forced to by the Syrophonecian mother.