We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
A SCRAPPY ENCOUNTER
One of the striking things about all four Gospel accounts is the place and role given to women in their relationships with Jesus and how he meets them and engages with them. It was certainly a counter-cultural way of behaving, in that it is obvious that Jesus gave space to women to become real protagonists with him. Not only this but they become, in the Gospel stories, figures placed centrally in some of the most memorable scenes – one thinks of Mary, Jesus’ mother, again and again; the women who were said to accompany Jesus and his disciples throughout the course of his ministry and provide for them(Luke 8:1-3); the women whom he meets while struggling with his cross to the place of crucifixion (Luke 23:28-31); the women who are witnesses to the crucifixion itself and to the empty tomb (Mary of Magdala in particular); the Samaritan woman with whom Jesus has a protracted conversation (John 4); and we have just recently met the woman in the crowd who touches the hem of Jesus’ cloak and is cured (Mark 5:21 and following, which, of course, includes also the restoring to life of Jairus’s daughter!). And these are by no means the end of examples which we could cite.
Interestingly, despite criticism especially in Ireland, a recently published book by author Nina Fabrizio shows how Pope Francis has given special attention to the role which women currently exercise in the Church, and indeed on a wider, global platform. The author writes about her book, The Pope of Women (Il Papa delle Donne):
“The pope has a relationship with women that is full of mutual reciprocation. I believe there is a dialogue between this pope and the women from his religious world, which also includes nuns. Religious sisters are able to help on multiple fronts, one I mention in the book is how they fight against trafficking.”Nina Fabrizio, The Pope of Women (Il Papa della Donne)
Pope Francis himself has repeatedly denounced prostitution and trafficking throughout his pontificate, caring for the person behind this modern form of slavery:
“Here I think of children and women who are victims of prostitution and human trafficking, humiliated in their essential human dignity. I think of young people enslaved by drug addiction and a lack of meaning that makes them depressed and destroys their dreams. I think of migrants, deprived of their homes and families, and so many others, who like them can feel forgotten, orphaned or abandoned.”Pope Francis, November 21, 2019 – Bangkok
The author, Nina Fabrizio, goes on to say:
“Then there’s also a dialogue with all women (which the Pope carries on): lay, Catholic, obviously with Christians. But Pope Francis is a large world leader who knows how to reach those outside of the Catholic Church. I believe he is currently in dialogue with all women.”Nina Fabrizio, The Pope of Women (Il Papa della Donne)
So, it seems that those who wish to attack both the Holy Father and the Church for their support of women in today’s world wish to promote their own agenda and a point of view which does not reflect the current, dynamic situation.
With this in mind, we meet a woman who is as far distant to Jesus’s world as can be thought – she is, of course, female and a non-Jew the (Gospel refers to a “Greek”, indicating a non-believer), a Syrophoenician in fact. But she has immense courage, and a voice to match, expressing herself clearly and forthrightly – this woman knows what she has come to Jesus for and she isn’t going to be turned away!
But the passage from the beginning….
We have to know that Jesus, in making this journey, passes beyond the borders which would have been considered his home territory – he’s in the land of the “Greeks”, the pagans. In this sense, this is Jesus’ first mission properly speaking – he goes to evangelise those who do not belong to his own people and who are geographically removed. It cannot have been easy, either for him or for the Jews accompanying him as apostles and disciples. In fact there is something of an anomaly at the heart of this passage – Jesus protests to the woman that the children should be fed first, and he means here “the children of Israel”. So what precisely is he doing wandering into the midst of those who are not the “children”? And, as this gospel has already borne ample witness, hasn’t Jesus been feeding them and generously? The question will be answered at the end of the passage.
In the first place, Jesus comes into a house. We are told nothing about whose house this is, are they converts to Judaism, and Jesus’ way, have they invited him in (as happened with others) or has he simply stopped to rest. But, in a sense, and as elsewhere in the Gospels, if these details had been significant or important the evangelist would have told us. Therefore, they are not, and what is before us is all that the evangelist wishes us to think about and consider. What is important is that this is the place and time in which Jesus will encounter, invite and act. Perhaps it’s unlooked for – it’s not now a synagogue, or the Temple, or the Sea of Galilee (on the shore or on the water or going back and forth across it). It is simply a house – for the evangelist this means, any place. We become used to looking in one place for Jesus to reveal himself, make himself known, touch our lives in the way which we expect – and all the time he’s doing this already in the ordinary place which we have ignored.
Jesus is, as it were, under our very nose! Fr Adrian van Kaam expresses something of this in his poem Epiphanies of Mystery:
Every ordinary moment can become, perhaps is waiting to become, a revelation of mystery, when the shadow clears and we see, clearly, God’s presence with us, in us, around us, carrying us, consoling us. The mystery of the ordinary and everyday is part of the mystery of incarnation – how absurd it is that God should become what we ourselves are so that we could touch him, hear him, be embraced by him! Absurd, and yet reality! The ordinary is already the extraordinary; what is in plain sight is already holding the hidden out to us for our consideration.
Look again at the ordinary in your life and see if you can see there a house – a place in which Jesus has stopped, for the sole purpose of meeting you and listening to you, and saying a word, if it needs to be said (he is, after all, the Word that needs no other words to be spoken). He simply waits for us to notice him – and then he responds completely!
So, to answer something of the anomaly – Jesus has come to this place expressly to meet this woman and to engage with her. There is something more – Jesus is recognised even in this foreign place where, strictly, no one should know him. So, once again, we are faced with the fact that Jesus’ name and reputation has preceded him – what he has done and what he has said have prepared people to meet him and receive him and be transformed by him. This poses a serious question for us – what has been our response (and it will be many ways of responding, in fact) to what we have heard and seen about Jesus? This provides a pivotal moment in our own faith development and ownership: my evangelising others – preaching the word of the Gospel to them and bringing Christ to them – depends almost completely upon my own graced experience of Christ: what I have heard, what I have experienced, what is in my heart, and how it finds expression on my lips and in my life.
The woman immediately adopts an attitude of abasement and supplication – she knows she is in the presence of one who is entirely different to anyone and everyone else, and she falls at his feet. This is not about her being a woman – she behaves this way because of who Jesus is, not because of who she is. Neither does the Gospel writer demean the woman by depicting her at Jesus’ feet – that sort of infantile interpretation deserves, in the strongest terms, to be thrown out! The same must apply to us, whoever we are – I cannot come before God in Christ demanding, as it were, on my own terms. There is something here which flies in the face of common attitudes today – it is sometimes expressed as the feeling or attitude of “entitlement”: that, in some way, I am entitled to have or be given what I ask for, for no other reason than that I am asking it, and I deserve to get what I demand! This is precisely the inverse of all that the Christian believes in their relationship with God: God will provide what I need, and he asks me to trust him that he will do so. Yes, certainly we are invited to discern and recognise our needs, in so far as we can – ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you – but this is not a carte blanche which allows me to demand whatever I want.
This woman is courageous and selfless. She puts herself into a circumstance which might have not been altogether welcoming – almost certainly the men would have been in one part of the house talking while the women were in another. So, she takes a tremendous risk in approaching Jesus, and so boldly. But what is risk? Risk implies that I have something to lose in what I do. I make a sort of wager, and wait to see if I will win or lose. But what has this woman got to lose here? Nothing! And what does she stand to gain? Everything, since the health and wellbeing of her daughter will surely mean everything to her!
I stand to lose nothing by approaching Jesus, coming into his company, learning about his way of life and the blessings (literally, beatitudes) which it brings with it. I stand to gain if I come to know that this discipleship is not simply about myself. Here the woman stands in the place of her daughter who has an unclean spirit afflicting her. This coming to Jesus is not about her, but entirely about another. She intercedes for another, pleads for another, puts another’s needs squarely before her own. But the most liberating part of this experience is not simply that the little girl will be healed and “freed”, as it were: the mother, this Syrophoenician woman who has no faith per se in Jesus as messiah, will herself, having asked for another and not herself, be transformed. What happens to another in answer to her prayers will fill her with a grace which she has never known or experienced.
This woman teaches us what it is to pray for others. Not simply a hurried remembrance, or a mumbled appendix to my usual prayers. She shows us that to pray truly for another person and their needs, to bring that person, effectively, to Christ for his touch and word, I need to leave myself utterly behind. I ask that Christ’s gaze fall upon the one whom I name and call to mind – and I don’t get in the way of that single, loving gaze, which is healing.
Yes, personally speaking, my needs may be great, and pressing for me. But perhaps, being unable to pray for myself when I have the duty to pray for another, I need to commit myself, in trust, to the prayer of someone else. This is transformative on many levels – to involve another in my life to the extent that I ask them to carry me in prayer!
Christ isn’t being discriminatory here! This isn’t a matter of “us” and “you”. He is doing what all good teachers of his day did – he’s engaging the woman in a conversation to bring her to the point where she articulates what she needs. And perhaps it is also instructive for those (perhaps shocked) onlookers – it cuts through the fawning nonsense which might have accompanied many conversations with those who wish to ingratiate themselves and gain something by their effort!
The term used here in the Greek text – psichion – means, properly “crumbs”. So, the woman is asking to share in barely nothing! This is very different from the klasmaton in the feeding of the multitude – the leftovers, which, once gathered up, could have easily been used to feed another great crowd. Once again, we are reminded about our own grasping selfishness – we amass whatever we can, and most of it will go to waste or never be used, or will be replaced without ever having really been worn. A consumer society is not identified by what things it consumes – it is identified by how it is consumed by the things which it accumulates!
This nudges us in so many directions! Perhaps it demands now a recalibration of the important things in my life, relationships, home, belongings – is it time, at last, to move aside in a definitive way – that’s to say, in a way which redefines me and my life, sets new borders, literally – those many things which simply clutter?
This is discernment, of course – sorting! Following from this, what are the thoughts and attitudes and practices which define me, make me who I am, and allow me to live in right relationship with God, and the others in my life, and myself?
Again, what are the crumbs which in fact will feed me? Our own tables – actual and metaphorical – are heaving to the point of vulgarity with what we need and what we will waste, while too many others (and they are living around me) have nothing to put on a table for themselves or their families. And that is not simply food, although food is the basic necessity which nourishes, builds personal dignity, draws families and communities together. It becomes the crumbs of my time given to others, my charitable outreach, the re-establsihment of forgotten relationships, the ending of destructive ones, my words of comfort, my going beyond the borders of my own safe existence into a land of risk.
This Gospel passage, once one chuckles at the humour in the exchange, somewhat wipes the smile from our lips. We simply take too much for granted, and fail to notice that we are doing so.
The final thought should tell us much about exactly what Jesus does when we allow him to intervene in our lives, and when we invite him to intervene in the life of another. Throughout the passage we have heard about the woman’s daughter who is afflicted and made unclean, as it were. But the passage closes with Mark referring to the daughter as “child” – and it will not be lost on us that the children referred to already were those of the covenanted people, the Jews. So, this extraordinary journey made by Christ – and he heads back to his own lands after this! – is momentous. The children are those also whom we would not at first expect to be. Christ throws open the house doors so that it becomes a home to all who come to him for healing. Christ, to be tautological, redefines borders, and he demonstrates that borders which separate and unjustly divide are there to be crossed. In this way, Christ becomes the bridge which spans the gap of our unjust judgments. He establishes a new way of relating which must pass through him as the new lawgiver and sign, symbol and sacrament of the new covenant which God establishes with all peoples who would come to him.
All have the possibility of sharing not just in the crumbs but in the messianic banquet. And as if to reinforce this, Mark will soon give us another account of a miraculous multiplication of food.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-