Receiving from the Stranger

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He then rose up, left that place, and set out on a journey to the region around Tyre…But this woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to expel the demon from her daughter. But he said to her: “Let the children first eat all they want; for it is not right to take food from the children and throw it to the little dogs.” But the woman retorted and said to him: “Sire, even the little dogs under the table make a meal of the crumbs that the children give them.” And he said to her: “Because of what you said, go home; the demon has already left your daughter.”

Mark 7: 24; 26-29

In their commentary on the Gospel of Mark, John Donohue and Daniel Harrington speak of this narrative as portraying “an array of ‘boundary crossings.'” In this brief episode boundaries of race, culture, class and gender are all traversed and even violated. The story today is rife with conflict, drawn to our attention by the harsh words of Jesus to the woman. In chapter 7 verse 15, Jesus has just proclaimed that “Nothing outside a person can enter and make a person unclean.” Yet, here he speaks of the food of “the children” and the crumbs for “the little dogs.” It is only the powerful “retort” of the woman that changes Jesus’ consciousness. “Because of what you said, go home; the demon has already left your daughter.”

There is a certain “scandalous” aspect to Mark’s account of this incident. In fact, it is so troubling that by the time Matthew recounts it he changes the cause of the healing from what the woman says to her faith. (Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” Mt. 15:28) But it is Mark’s account that is the more challenging to us.

The early Church lived with the great struggle of what were to be the boundaries of “the Kingdom of God.” Was it limited to “the children” or did even “the little dogs” have access to it? Mark dares to include Jesus himself in this conflict, and to suggest that even Jesus had to open himself to be formed by the desire, hope, and faith of the foreigner, the stranger, the enemy. In today’s gospel Jesus is jolted by the woman’s audacity into the realization that God’s reign is for any and all who seek it with a sincere heart.

The thoughts and ways of God are always infinitely beyond our understanding. We are reminded today that while God’s world is infinitely “boundless,” our worlds are always relatively small. We make our way in the world through the “common sense” we attain through our cultures and traditions—helpful and necessary to be sure, but also inhibiting and sources of smallness and prejudices. Some years ago in a discussion of tribalism in Kenya, one of our young Brothers pointed out that his tribe’s name for the neighboring tribe was “the ones who steal sheep.” We not only identify others by their relationship to us, but we also identify ourselves in contrast to the others. In today’s gospel we even see Jesus doing this. This is one of the principal forms of human blindness and ignorance.

The great 15th century thinker Nicholas of Cusa spoke of the need for us to develop “learned ignorance,” that is, to come to know the limits of our own knowledge and understanding. It is this realization of what we don’t know and can’t know that will open us to the ways, the thoughts, and the love of God, that are “immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20).

In today’s gospel we see even Jesus being formed by receiving a difficult message from an unlikely and even undesirable source. May we live today in enough knowledge of our own ignorance that we can receive what is offered to us, from wherever it comes.

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