This is some Gospel. Let’s explore it. Jesus heads beyond the borders of the Holy Land, travelling north towards what is now southern Lebanon. He is on his way into pagan territory, the region of Tyre and Sidon (which in the Bible represent sinful cities). His mission is to his own people – so if he is going away from their land, something strange is happening. And as he goes north, a desperate pagan woman is heading south – looking for him. She is a Canaanite, we’re told, someone belonging to Israel’s oldest enemy, an epitome of godlessness; the title’s a red flag if ever there was. But there is something about this woman. She is already aware of Jesus. She is seeking him laden with distress: carrying the pain of her afflicted, demonised daughter. She is a mother who completely identifies with her suffering child: “have pity on me”, she says, “my daughter is in torment.” The daughter’s torment is hers. And we notice how she addresses Jesus. She’s full of respect and faith. She calls him “Lord” (not“Sir”). In the course of their exchange, she calls him “Lord” three times. Her first word to him is “eleison”, and then come these three “Kyries”. We should remember her at the beginning of every Mass! And her anguish fuels her petition: she’s shouting, screaming. And Jesus’ first response is silence. He has “no word” for her. He the Word made flesh has nothing to say to her. She embodies unanswered prayer. Her frantic words collide with his imperial silence. He seems just to stride on ignoring her and she, rebuffed, to fall in behind the disciples. But she doesn’t stop shouting. “Give her what she wants”, the disciples say, exasperated; anything to get her off our back – the quick solution. Jesus then speaks for the first time – but to the disciples, not to her. “I am sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. This woman is not part of my mission, not my baby, as it were. She must have heard this and felt the further rebuff. She was getting rough treatment. But now she begins to show her mettle. She comes straight up to her Jesus and throws herself at his feet. Her voice drops, we imagine. “Lord”, she says again, quietly now, “help me”. It’s so direct and simple. And now for the first time Jesus speaks to her – but only to insult her! Today Jesus would be had up for racism. He calls her – as Jews were wont to call pagans – a “dog”. You’re not an Israelite, you’re not a child of God; you don’t have a place at the table. What would you do with a dog that’s at your feet being a nuisance during a meal? Kick it surely. One might say, Jesus was verbally kicking this woman. This isn’t, shall we say, the Jesus we know and love. It’s certainly not the inclusive, p.c. Jesus we buy into nowadays. Frankly, the Lord is deliberately offending her. But let’s finish the story first. The woman’s courage doesn’t waver; she now surpasses herself. She agrees with Jesus: sure, I’m just a dirty “little dog”, but even they can eat the “little crumbs” that fall from the master’s table. And this self-deprecating repartee turns the key of Jesus’ heart. It’s like the lance that drew out blood and water from his side on the Cross. It opens the floodgates. Jesus says: “O woman, great is your faith”. Our translation misses the “O”, but it’s in the Greek. It is a cry of admiration on his part, a “great O”. He is “wowed” by her and we’re reminded of his response to another pagan, a Roman centurion: “nowhere in Israel have I found such faith” (Mt 8:10). When he calls her “woman” too, it reminds us of Adam’s joyful response to Eve: “this at last is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone” (Gen 2:23). “O woman, great is your faith” goes the word order in Greek: putting “great” at the centre. And so “let what you want be done” – her will conquers his. And “her daughter was healed from the very moment”, and all the torment of her own soul swept away.
This is some episode. Was not the Lord playing with her all along? Playing hide and seek. There’s a message for us here: to keep praying and trusting, undeterred by God’s silences and life’s setbacks. He hides so we’ll keep seeking. This is already in the Song of Songs. Jesus knew the faith and love in this woman’s heart, and wanted it brought out, displayed to the disciples and to us. When he said “O woman”, it was a great cry of relief. She had netted the ball. She had won. It’s not by chance they end up talking of a table; this is the wedding feast of the Lamb.
So, we take heart for life’s dark passages.
And what God does with individuals, hiding from us so we’ll seek the more, St Paul says he does in history too. When he chose the Jews, he hid, as it were, from the Gentiles, but only so that souls like the magi, the Roman soldier and this Canaanite woman, and countless others known to God, would set out in search of him. And vice versa, when he hides from the Jews. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”, cries St Paul (Rom 11:33) thinking of this and adding an “O” of his own.
Are the atheism and confusion of today perhaps also a hiding on God’s part – so that “great faith”, a pure faith, will break out in unexpected places? And bring forth the “great O” hidden in Jesus’ heart, waiting to hail our faith and love?