In the ordinary form of the Mass, the Gospel is about the “Dog-Woman”
One of the books I’m working on deals with the women mentioned in the Gospels, one of which is the famous Dog-Woman of the Gospels of both Matthew and Mark. To introduce the Dog-Woman as a heroine of HSH, I’ll just offer you this rough draft of some comments about the presentation of the Dog-Woman in Matthew’s Gospel. I haven’t yet incorporated all the observations that I was given by seminarians and faculty and staff at the Pontifical College Josephinum. However, I do believe you’ll enjoy this, especially if you’ve ever thought that Jesus was being rather discourteous to this great woman of faith, whose little infant daughter is possessed.
The exorcism of the Dog-Woman’s infant daughter is the most outrageous event of its kind in the Scriptures. I tried to make my translation of the account pedantic enough to ensure that the irony helps to manifest the seeming paradox: Caritas in veritate
Mt 15,21And Jesus, having gone away from there, withdrew into the districts of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman, having come out from those boundaries, cried out, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David: my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” 23But He did not answer her a word. And his disciples, having come up, entreated Him, saying, “Dismiss her, for she cries out after us.” 24But, having answered, He said, “I was not sent [to any] but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she, having come, worshiped Him, saying, “O Lord! Come to my aid!” 26But He, having answered her, said, “It is not good to take the bread of the children and throw it to the little lap dogs.” 27But she said, “Yes, O Lord, for even the little lap dogs eat the scraps falling from the table of their masters.” 28Then, having answered, Jesus said to her, “O woman! Great is your faith! Be it done for you as you wish!” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
First of all, let’s take not of the fact that the sea peoples of these merchant cities of Tyre and Sidon were not particularly friendly with their rivals to the South. These districts were, by this time, Greek by culture, regardless of their location in Phoenicia, the greater Syria, the old Canaan. Their being both worldly and pagan reflected the spirit of their conquerors and colonizers, including the Philistines of long ago, and now the Roman Empire. The land once belonged to the Tribe of Asher, but the religious influence of the sons of Jacob to the South and East was almost non-existent, or was fiercely pagan.
In going to Tyre and Sidon, our Lord knows that He is heading into pagan territory and that He has not been sent to evangelize non-Israelites, saving that for us. But there is no conflict with what will happen with the “Dog-Woman”. She is no pagan. While that is clear to us, at least after some explanation, emotional conflicts made it difficult for the Jews of that time, including the Apostles, to wrap their minds around the fact that anyone coming out of those boundaries might not be a pagan. Just because they were all occupied by Rome didn’t make them friends.
Unexpectedly, this supposedly pagan woman cries out, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David: my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” We are a bit freer than the Apostles – who were so close to the situation – to see that Pagans don’t cry out saying such things. We can hear her as being a faithful Israelite, even if one who is lost to the grip of Satan. No one but a believer, that is, an Israelite, begs for mercy from the Lord precisely under His title of Son of David. No one in Tyre or Sidon was expecting any Son of David. While there was some abstract (and sometimes esoteric) expectation of the Son of David in Israel, little of this had been put on such a personal level for some seventy times seventy years, except, for instance, by a few blind men, one or more of whom may have been following what they heard about her way down in Jericho (Matthew 9,27; Mark 10,47; Luke 18,38).
In any event, that Jesus is the Son of David is a stunning declaration for anyone to make at that time, much less someone like her. Who could expect her to be well read in Jewish history? Who could expect her to make the connection with Jesus and King David? She believed and acted on her belief.
Such courage urged by a love which disregarded the difficulties she might face from her fellow countrymen could not be made more striking inasmuch as this concerns a request that her daughter be delivered from a severe case of demon possession. The Canaanites had a long history of sacrificing their children to the Canaanite demon gods, often led by the in-name-only sons of Abraham (Ps 106,36-38; 2 Kg 16,3; 17,17; 21,6; Isa 57,5; Jer 7,31; 32,35; Ez 16,20-21; 20,26; 23,37; et al.), the most prominent of whom was none other than King Solomon, a son of David, who permitted the sacrifice of his sons (other sons of David, so to speak) to the very demon gods of the Canaanites from whose oppression this Dog-Woman now wanted her daughter to be saved. Who could fail to grasp the irony of the situation? Who could fail to see that she was a faithful daughter of Abraham? Who could fail to see her lack of political correctness in the face not only of her countrymen but also of many in Israel? What a saintly woman this suffering mother is! How fearless! How loving!
But with all this going on, the Evangelist simply informs us that the Lord did not answer her a word. Nothing. But that doesn’t mean He was ignoring her. His silence with her – as with us on so very many occasions – forces a reflection on who we are before the providential and permissive will of the Lord. Our Lord wants us all to be very clear about His love for us, whether we enjoy good circumstances or suffer what seem to be intolerable situations. Continuing to trust in the Lord, when the Lord Himself does not seem to be trustworthy, demonstrates that we are on the way with our Lord. He wants that we be able to pray, “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” It is a question posed to an attentive Listener, God the Father, with Whom one is still united, but Who seems to have abandoned oneself. Are we ready, with sanctifying grace, to be with Jesus on the Cross just this much?
It’s important to recognize that she keeps crying out. It’s important to ask ourselves if we would continue to cry out, if we would be as abandoned to love as she is. The famed Preacher-Healer-Exorcist seems to shun her, but that does not stop her. For her, there must be an explanation as to why He seems to be neglecting her request. Humbly, she continues to cry out, but not with bitter words such as, “Priests couldn’t care less!” She has faith. Do we continue in humble faith when we demand, in desperation, some pastoral care from the Church and seem to be shunned?
The Apostles approach Jesus and beg Him to get rid of her, for she is following them, continuing to cry out. Her faith aggravates them, for all they can see is that she is a pagan, though she is not. They are such cowards in front of this woman. They cower next to Jesus, whimpering their fears like dogs. Sometimes the Lord permits us to make fools of ourselves so that we can see plainly the true state of affairs. This was surely the case of what happened with the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, who kept crying out for the Son of David even though the crowd rebuked him, making fools of themselves. This is where Jesus now had the Apostles. What happens next – as in all such situations permitted for our own good – is awesome.
The Lord answers both the Apostles and the woman at the same time: “I was not sent [to any] but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
For the Apostles, the Lord is clearly on their side. They have not quite mastered how to go about uniting all tribes and tongues and peoples and nations to be one flock under one shepherd. Their time will come to be sundered in martyrdom for the sake of the unity of the Kingdom. But for now, is it not true that, in their thinking, they have “won”, and expect to see the woman leave? “I was not sent [to any],” said the Lord, “but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The eager misinterpretation of these words on the part of the Apostles betrays a corrupt faith put in the service of a cowardly, politically correct, self-serving, self-congratulatory nationalism. It is almost impossible for them to see beyond their dark prejudices.
The woman, instead, in her great faith, understands the words of our Lord as an invitation to manifest her faith again for the sake of the Apostles. They are her enemies, and they need convincing that she is not a pagan, but is, instead, a true Israelite because of her faith. A true Israelite would share her faith with them even if they would not share their faith with her. The Apostles do not yet know just how excruciating is the irony which is playing out before them. The woman, a good teacher, does not just one thing, but two. She worships the Lord, demonstrating her faith once again, and then cites the psalm that was so familiar to the Apostles as it is to seminarians and priests and bishops still today, “O Lord! Come to my aid!” She is not afraid to manifest her faith in all its fulness. In making such an answer, she is saying that she also belongs to the house of Israel, indeed, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, lost to Satan’s hatred of the Lord’s own.
Usually people in dire straights shout out their bitterness with the question, “Why me?” The suffering she has borne with her little daughter has been an occasion she has taken to become the mulier fortis that she is. What humility! She is a lost sheep on her own, but saved by her God-given faith in the Son of David. She falls within the mission for which our Lord was sent by our Heavenly Father.
At this point, the Lord fully reveals His plan to pick up the pieces into which He has allowed the Apostles to fall. But He does this in a way that only she will understand. His joy is hidden to all but her. She is still at his feet. She may, if she wants, look up into His eyes (as if she were a begging dog). And then He pronounces the saying that has made some doubt the goodness of our Lord. He says, “It is not good to take the bread of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
Do not the Apostles rejoice in what they think is their victory, with the Lord seeming to be as prejudiced as they are? Is not this woman for them just a Dog-Woman? But it is just to this degree of arrogance that the Apostles are like little dogs, pagans who don’t deserve the full meal of believers, the children of Abraham.
The one who is a Dog-Woman in the eyes of the Apostles is having a great time of it, offering her response in a way which, following the example of our Lord, does not reveal to the Apostles what is about to happen, leaving that for the Lord to say: “Yes, O Lord!” she says, “for even the little dogs eat the scraps falling from the table of their masters.” In other words, “Go ahead, Lord, and do the exorcism, for although the Apostles, these little dogs, will witness this, the bread to be eaten by the children of faith with the fact of the exorcism, the bread of your establishment of the Kingdom among your loved ones (her little girl), perhaps this eating of the scraps of this feast of faith by these same dog-Apostles will do them good. And won’t that be a good thing?”
And isn’t that true charity for those Apostles who have been so obtuse, so abusive of their office, so hateful and vengeful, so self-congratulatory, so lacking in understanding of true religion? The Apostles were so full of themselves that they could not see beyond themselves, so making idols of themselves – as good as any idol of the false gods of Tyre and Sidon to whom children were sacrificed – that, in effect, they were sacrificing her child to the demons of their own convenience of not wanting to bother with her, not caring if her little daughter was freed from the grip of Satan or not. They would rather her child perish in the grasp of an actual demon than that they be turned away from the idol worship of themselves. Who cannot fail to see the irony? Our Lord is the Master of Irony.
Irony Incarnate rejoices at the repentance of at least most of the Apostles that He knows will follow. “O woman! Great is your faith!” He exclaims. “Be it done for you as you wish!” Her daughter was healed from that very hour.
The Apostles were surely stunned, jaws dropping. They must have felt like little dogs. It’s good for them, such humiliation. It’s good for us too. But we must be open to this. They had our Lord standing before them, prodding them. But we are not lost. We have our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, encouraging us. Indeed, we priests act in His Person during Holy Mass when, upon Calvary, all hell had broken loose in hatred of our Lord, all hell with the same kind of demon that possessed the little girl of this woman. The veracity of the conviction of our spirits with such truths is put to the test by the answer we give to the questions: Do we priests recognize how the Lord is working with us through others? Is such a woman a Dog-Woman, or is she a messenger of God?
We can be encouraged by the fact that although our Lord raced up to Tyre and Sidon to do this exorcism for this great woman of faith, He also did this for the benefit of His Apostles, using her, to her great joy, to teach them a worthy lesson that Our Lord cares for us even as He cares for those to whom we are sent. What a relief it is for us to know that He is with us, with all of us! Should anyone doubt the ferocity of the teaching of the Apostles, he might like to read the account of the rebuke of the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew just previous to this account of this Canaanite woman.
The only borders that there are to the Kingdom of God are those that people create to keep themselves out. Jesus is always breaking down these borders with His charity in truth (His charity in irony!), His mercy, His goodness and kindness, again, a real sweetness of which mere niceness is ignorant. People still have the free will to remain apart from the Kingdom. If we do, we soon find that we are oppressing the poor in all self-justification, just as the Apostles were doing with this great woman of faith. When the cry of those in anguish reaches the throne of the Most High because of our lack, because of our being caught up in our own selves, it is a good thing to be made to feel like little dogs, for this is our own opportunity to be brought to conversion, an occasion not to be neglected. We might not have another opportunity. Our Lord works on our behalf with each such encounter with this or that “Dog-Woman”; we are fools not to beg Him for the vision to see the irony He affords us.
It is necessary to add a word about the “Dog-Woman’s” attitude toward the Apostles. They were not so important that their lack of faith was an excuse for her to abandon the faith. Sadly, amidst scandals among even the Successors of the Apostles, many, unlike her, have abandoned the faith in anger, tangible bitterness. This story should be shared with those who have suffered injustice. She knows all about the demonic, all about abuse of office, all about a lack of concern for children. Yet, she remains with the Lord with true charity for all, even her enemies, making them friends. Now that’s awesome.
Holy Souls Hermitage welcomes the Dog-Woman as a special heroine. I’ve known many a supposed “Dog-Woman” in my years as a deacon and as a priest, and even now as a hermit, amazingly enough. I ask the “Dog-Woman” of the Gospels to intercede for wretched me, that I might always be able to take in what the Lord’s providence has in mind for me through these great women of faith. Thanks, “Dog-Woman!” You are just so awesome!