Jamie Cleaton was the Youth Minister of Sacred Heart Parish Ocean Beach a few years ago. He is in the habit of praying together with his wife and children before going to bed. As part of the night prayer, there is a place for general intercessions where each family member prays for a specific intention. One day, his then three or four-year-old daughter prayed like this, “Let us pray for Jesus Christ so that he doesn’t fall off the cross…we pray oh Lord.” I found it so funny and I have shared the story with many of my friends. On one occasion, I shared the story with a fellow chaplain who said, “Father, please, tell the little girl not to bother pray for Jesus to remain on the cross because there are many people who are working round the clock to keep Jesus on the cross.”
Jesus came for the purpose of reconciliation. The horizontal and the vertical parts of the cross show that Jesus came for both vertical and horizontal reconciliation. He came to reconcile humanity to divinity vertically, and he came to reconcile humanity to humanity horizontally. Put differently, he came to break the wall and to build the bridge. For this reason, he went to the cross, was brought down, buried, and he rose victoriously. Unfortunately, many are working hard to keep him on the cross so that there will be no resurrection; many are working hard to break the bridge and rebuild the wall; many are working hard to render his work of reconciliation ineffective.
Today’s gospel passage at first sight comes across as controversial. It seems as if Jesus is breaking the bridge and building the wall. It sounds unpleasant to hear Jesus call the woman a dog. The interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in the Gospel passage presents Jesus as using the Socratic Method to lead the woman to the main truth of his mission. Socratic Method is “a form of corporative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.” The woman began by addressing Jesus as Lord and Son of David. These two titles acknowledge two things about Jesus, that is, his universal mission and his particular origin. The title Son of David was used by the Jews to stress his particular origin as a Jew to exclude the Gentiles. We will get back to that in a moment.
When the woman cried out to Jesus, she said, “Have pity on me…my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Notice how she has built a bridge between herself and her daughter. Rather than ask for pity on her daughter, she asked for pity on herself for the sake of her daughter. It was like saying, “Though my daughter is the one tormented, I suffer with her, so if you save her, you have saved me.” Going back to the title of Jesus as Son of David: because the woman addressed Jesus as Son of David, Jesus decided to play along. He reminded her that calling him Son of David meant acknowledging his particular origin as a Jew, and by implication, that keeps the woman who is a gentile outside of Jesus’ jurisdiction. Jesus went on to remind her that to the Jews, the gentiles are dogs and as such, should not be fed with the food meant for the children. When the woman realized how Jesus was emphasizing his Jewish identity over his universal mission, and that it was resulting in her being placed outside and her request not being granted, she became more resourceful and so she dropped the title, Son of David and called him Lord, which brings out his universal mission.
Regarding calling her a dog, there is a word play here. Among the Jews, dogs are not allowed to come into the house. So to feed the dogs, you have to open the door and throw the food to them. But among the gentiles, dogs are allowed into the house, and when the master and his children are eating, the dogs continue to hang around expectantly for some particles to fall on the ground. Based on the Jewish culture, Jesus talked about how inappropriate it was to take the children’s food and throw to the dogs outside, but the woman took the same story based on her culture and used it to her own advantage saying that some particles do fall to the ground for the puppy to eat. The bridge she has built here is that the same food that the master eats also comes down to the dog, likewise, the same salvation that Jesus has brought to the Jews can come to the gentiles. At this point, Jesus declared her a woman of great faith and he granted her request. My dearly beloved in Christ, let us examine ourselves: how do I treat people who are different from me in race, tribe, color, origin, status etc? That goes to tell if I am one of those keeping Jesus on the cross or not. He came to die and he rose from the dead to make us one with God and with one another. He is our bridge, he is our meeting point. That is why on the last day, based on how we treat others, he will say to us: “When I was hungry you gave me to eat, when I was thirsty you gave me to drink, now enter into the home of my Father! Whatsoever you do to the least of my people; that you do unto me.”