You have a relative that you love very much. One day you received a phone call informing that your relative had a high fever and kept vomiting. Upon hearing it, you left all your work behind, immediately took him to the hospital. Then in the midst of your worry, the doctor simply answered: “His sickness is serious. But I am sorry. I don’t cure him because his family name is different from mine.” If you feel shocked in this imaginative story, let me tell you a real case that is even more shocking.
All Christians know a story that is hard to understand: A woman has a daughter who is possessed by a demon. “Possessed by a demon” is considered as a horrible phenomenon or sickness to the person, his or her family and the society. It affects not only the physical health but also the reputation, profession, emotion, psychology and even faith of those who are involved. Overwhelmed with suffering, the woman looked for Jesus to ask for his healing for her tormented daughter. Following him on the road and calling out with loud voice after him, she finally received an answer from him: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” (Mt 15:26) So shocked! The Master Jesus had always been well known for his love. He had always been teaching others to love. He had never refused to heal anyone. But now he suddenly had a discriminatory and offensive attitude toward her just because she didn’t belong to the same people and religion. How do you think about this? As for me, to be honest, I felt very uncomfortable for many years when hearing this biblical passage.
Dear friend, there are different interpretations for this story. Let me also contribute my humble reflection with hope that the question at hands may be clearer. My reflection today will adopt a ‘reversed fashion’, meaning it will begin with the result (last moment) and gradually proceed backward to the motivation (first moment). Please be patient with me.
The result of the encounter between the gentile woman and Jesus is clear: Jesus not only healed her daughter but also honored her as a model of faith for his intimate disciples whom he would give the mission to lead the faith of other believers later. This result is way better than her expectation. He healed not only her daughter but also herself and those present there as well as all of us who are learning about him today.
Now, holding this wonderful result firm and clear in our mind, let’s explore the reason why Jesus had that ‘strange’ attitude. I see that Jesus knew well the human psychology. He was skillfully applying a pedagogy here. As we know, in his time, those who were not sharing the same Jewish tradition and religion were considered ‘gentiles’ who needed to be converted to Judaism. If not, one should not interact with them to avoid negative influences. We must be familiar with the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob. The disciples of Jesus were “surprised” when they saw him talking with her. (John 14:27) Usually, people would think that God did not like or care about the gentiles, or even worse, God did not give them salvation. This exclusive mentality was deeply rooted in the contemporary tradition. Brothers and sisters, we just talked about being ‘gentile’. Now add “possessed by a demon” to see how bad the situation was.
It is in this context that Jesus expressed not only one but two negative attitudes which had the color of exclusivity. We will see the reason why in a moment. The first negative attitude: when the disciples asked Jesus to “send away” the crying gentile woman, he also gave an uncomfortable answer: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt 15: 24) Here Jesus was taking and ‘playing’ their role in order to give them an opportunity to face their own ‘uncomfortability’. ‘Uncomfortability’ at times is a good opportunity for people to observe what is going on in their hearts. In doing so, they have more time to examine things they often view as correct or normal, for example, their proud and exclusive mentality: “We are God’s people, we are more worthy of God than the gentiles, and God only saves those like us”. Then now came the second negative attitude: Jesus responded to the crying woman: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” (Mt 15:26). This is a saying found in the society at that time. When the disciples heard Jesus using the same saying they often used, they probably felt ‘safe’ because Jesus was acting in their exclusive behavior. Yet at the same time, they might also feel unsafe because they knew well that the Master always surpassed everyone in love and even taught them to love enemies. They might be experiencing a mixed state of being ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’. They must have asked themselves: What should I do?
Then came the decisive moment. The whole situation was radically but naturally changed when Jesus told the woman: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Mt 15:28) “Ah, the Master was like us a moment ago but now He has changed. So let us also follow his example and change ourselves.” Dear friend, Jesus helped the disciples change their biased view and exclusive mentality without embarrassing them. Healing the gentile woman’s daughter is an easy thing in his power, but changing the vision and heart of the disciples is a more important matter. I’m imagining a fun scene: After this success, Jesus winked an eye as a sign of assurance of healing at the suffering woman who wanted to jump out of joy.
Jesus used this encounter with the gentile woman to give the disciples, including ourselves, at least two things: first, a model for discipleship: an unreserved faith of a gentile woman; second, a foundational truth of the Gospel: “Salvation is for all who want to receive it”. There is a connection between the lesson Jesus taught the disciples today and their way of leading the Church later when Peter, on behalf of the other apostles, proclaims in the midst of discriminatory communities: “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted the gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.” (Acts 15:8-9)
Yes, God’s love knows no limit. Our heavenly Father desires to embrace and heal everyone because everyone is his beloved child. Our Master and Lord – Jesus Christ – has offered his life to all, without any exclusivity. My dear friend, let us pray that our vision and heart be more open to love, an embracing love like that of Jesus.
Joseph Viet, O.Carm.
Tiếng Việt / Vietnamese: https://only3minutes.wordpress.com/tieng-viet/k%E1%BA%BB-ngo%E1%BA%A1i-d%E1%BA%A1o/