The Gospel for today’s Mass shocks most modern readers and perhaps a few ancient ones as well. It is the story of the Syrophoenician woman who begs Jesus to heal her daughter. But Jesus ignores and then rebuffs her. Our shock says perhaps more about our poor understanding of love than about Jesus’ terse response.
For review, here is the well known passage:
Jesus went to the district of Tyre.
He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it,
but he could not escape notice.
Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him.
She came and fell at his feet.
The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth,
and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.
For it is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She replied and said to him,
“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”
Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go.
The demon has gone out of your daughter.”
When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed
and the demon gone (Mk 7:24-30).
While I have commented on other theories of this story elsewhere (Do Not Pass me By), in this post I want to briefly explore what our shock reveals about our own attitudes.
Briefly said, we tend to equate kindness with love; this is a mistake. Kindness is an aspect of love, but so is rebuke and so is punishment. Mercy and patience are aspects of love, but so are insisting on what is right and setting limits. Very often, true love requires us to be firm and insistent. Sometimes being kind is rather unloving, since that can assist or enable people in doing things that bring them great harm.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus, who is God and therefore is love, is for a moment “unkind” to the woman who seeks help for her daughter. He has His reasons for this. And while neither your nor I can read her heart, Jesus can. And it seems that Jesus sees a need to exact greater faith and trust from her. His rebuke challenges her, and challenges met have a way of increasing faith. She could have gone away angry or discouraged. With Jesus’ rebuke, her faith in His goodness is challenged. By staying in the conversation and refusing to give up her hope or faith, both these virtues grow. There is an old expression, “Things do by opposition grow,” and we see that here.
Why would her faith need to grow? I cannot speak for her, but I can speak for myself and from my experiences with others. Many people merely want relief, not healing. Healing is hard; it takes time and effort. Healing usually means that one must reexamine one’s life, thoughts, priorities, and so forth. Healing usually means making changes, some of them significant. It sometimes means giving up pleasures and ending unhealthy relationships.
Do we have the kind of faith that is willing to make the changes that healing often requires, or do we just want relief? I have found that people who have come to me over the years seeking deliverance and help often want a simple blessing or prayer to suffice. They are seeking relief and they want it fast. Some have made the longer journey toward healing, but others have gone away sad, angry, or discouraged.
In my own struggle during my mid-thirties, I think I started just wanting a quick solution to my anxieties; I wanted relief. But I came to discover that it was going to be a long journey to healing. It meant I was going to have to grow in trust by examining some of my controlling tendencies and changing the way I thought and lived.
Many years later, I can say that the healing has come. But it was a long and often difficult journey, during which I felt the way the Syrophoenician woman must have. In my own case, I was shocked by the Lord’s silence. And when I did hear His voice, it seemed only to challenge me. Was the Lord being unkind? Back then, I would have said, “yes.” But I have come to discover that the Lord was doing what was loving, even if at the time it seemed unkind and distant. The Lord was insisting that I come to trust Him more, for my own sake, and He wasn’t just going to keep sending me bromides for relief. His goal was to heal me. That was the loving thing to do.
Kindness has its place, but so does rebuke and so does the refusal to enable us in our sinful and wounded tendencies.
And so it was that a certain Syrophoenician woman experienced a moment of unkindness from Jesus. But she did not fail to receive His love. And while her story is told in a rather quick, focal way, our own stories may extend over a longer period. If we, like her, refuse to give up our hope and faith, if we stay with the Lord allowing Him to work and grow our faith in His work, we, too, will hear those marvelous words of the Lord: For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out.