Stern Love – A Meditation on a Moment When Jesus Was Unkind

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.

20 Replies to “Stern Love – A Meditation on a Moment When Jesus Was Unkind”

  1. You raise some very valid points. Relief is temporary….healing has long-term effects. Relief is when you have ways of numbing…they may last for days or months, but they don’t fix the problem or make it go away. Healing involves taking a hard look at what happened, coming to terms with it, and learning how to turn the experience/event/trauma into something positive in your life (whether you become an activist, an advocate, or help others in some way, shape, or form). Well, in a nutshell. It can take many years to come to a place of healing especially if numbing has taken place for many years. As always, you have very thought-provoking posts. Thank you 🙂

  2. Your explanation of your suffering in your thirties must be akin to an infant crying in their crib. The child wails and feels abandoned, and asks herself how her parents could leave her. Concurrently her parents lay in the room next door. They hear their precious child suffer and they are pained by it. However, in their parental wisdom, they know that for the child to grow and become independent that this temporary pain is necessary.

    May we all be children of God. May we all accept our crosses trusting in our Loving Father.

    1. @ Brock: an infant “asks herself how her parents could leave her”. Can you please explain how you know what an infant is thinking? My understanding of an infant’s crying is the expression of a basic need for food, a diaper change, or the loving touch and comfort of someone who loves her and through whom she is learning from a very young age, about the love of God the Father. BTW: My experience with infants is as a mother of two sons, and now a grandmother to four children who I have cared for often since their births.

  3. This is one of my favorite stories in the Gospels. I love it because this is a pushy woman. She wants something and she’s bold and forward about asking for it. She doesn’t care whether she deserves it or not. She sees He is curing people. She needs a cure for her daughter. She demands. She begs. She manipulates.

    And Jesus. Well, Jesus sees HER. What I love here is he is relating to this single individual. No, he says, the treasure I have to give goes only to the Israelites, God’s real children. The special ones.

    Is she insulted? Nope. So I’m a dog. Even dogs need to eat. True and sincere humility.

    It’s like the story of the Roman soldier who says, I understand your authority, so don’t bother yourself to come to my house, just speak and the forces of life will obey you. True faith.

    These stories are to show us the characteristics that open God’s kingdom to us. We need to understand and imitate them.

  4. These are the psychological principles in play: Growth in virtue involves a change of habit. Habit change is painful because it involves a resistance to the desire to seek only relief. Therefore, growth in virtue is painful.

    1. hehe, I like that song too. He also wrote (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding, as I expect you know.

  5. Thank you for taking the time to write and post here. Your writing brings the word to light for me and makes it very clear. I appreciate your posts and faithfulness.

  6. Msgr. Pope,
    Thanks for sharing your reflections with us. This reading has always been hard for me. I think in our own spiritual lives we experience something similar but it always comes back to the same thing. Do I believe in God’s love? Sometimes His love hurts.

  7. Cruel to be kind – in – the – right – measure♫ In the same way a Drill Sergeant might be perceived as being “cruel” because he is demanding and pushes his men beyond what they believe are their limits. He does so because he cares whether they live or they die. That form of “service” is authentic authority. Drill Sergeant’s ‘serve’ their people well by caring whether their people live or die and by doing those things which tend to keep them alive.

    Thanks Msgr. Pope for another awesome article.

  8. Today, that Gospel story reminds me of Solomon and the two women fighting over the baby. In the Gospel story, it is one woman and two peoples. Just as Solomon tested the women to see who was the true mother, Jesus tests the one woman to see if she is truly a mother to her child.–or gives her the opportunity to behave as a true mother.

    People pay 50 or 100 dollars or more to see a rock/pop act and they get less bang for their bucks than they would get if they went to see the Gospel group in that video, and possibly the Gospel group is performing for free.

    1. Also, in that passage Jesus demonstrates “that you have one greater than Solomon here” in that He restores the child to health, which Solomon was unable to do for the baby that died.

  9. Anything not “nice” in the Culture of Nice is perceived as negative, threatening or hate-filled. Ask kids today and they will tell you it’s not nice to be a hater. Of anything. Which indicates they’ve bought into the lie of relativism. Somewhere along the way the truth gets suppressed and confusion results. Unless we are truly prepared to battle the Culture of Nice with tough love in which the truth sometimes hurts, one day, soon enough, it will be illegal not to be nice.

  10. Dear Monsignor,

    What a beautiful post and reflection. Thank you.

    I am honored to pledge to you my personal regards,


  11. Our Lord knows the hearts of all, even of those not in relationship with Him. He wants us to know Him and live in His love. Thus, as in every encounter, Jesus elicits a response as only He knows best.
    God bless!

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