Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday word, 17 Aug 14

Do Not Dismay
20th Sunday of the Year A (17 Aug 2014)
Is 56. 1, 6-7; Ps 67; Rm 11. 13-15, 29-32; Mt 15. 21-28
Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.
This gospel episode leads many to dismay at Jesus’ behavior. So we can worship and go home in peace let’s recall in Jesus’ 1st Century, Mediterranean culture honor and shame were ever in play in most public ways. Modern folks’ dismay rises when we forget Jesus was born into that culture and lived it completely. Honor and shame in his culture were about how people perceived each other.

Honor and shame are ways of being perceived by people in all cultures. Honor is the core value in Mediter-ranean culture. Say I set myself before others as a teacher. If pupils followed me, I would enjoy honor; more pupils, greater honor. If no pupils came to learn from me, their public refusal would shame me. Any shame I would feel would be my personal woe. In the Mediterranean world everything is in play in public ways. Public shame—no pupils follow a teacher—public shame is more significant, more real. Honor and shame are ways anyone was perceived by others.

Location also affected the ways people perceived others. Jesus and the Canaanite woman met in what it is Lebanon today: Sidon is near Tyre, and Tyre is even nearer to today’s Israel-Lebanon border. In Jesus’ time and earlier the region of Tyre and Sidon was home to many non-Israelites. Many of them hungered for truth and had traveled to see Jesus in Galilee.1 But because they did not follow Jewish ways, Jews considered them shameful. So the woman Jesus met began at a sore disadvantage.

Jesus may have been on his way to Sidon to visit the place where Elijah had fed a widow and her son.2 Whatever his reason for being there the Canaanite woman heard Jesus was passing through. Their meeting lets us see honor and shame in action in their 1st Century, Mediterranean culture. We saw it play in speech, touch and insult.

Jesus ignored the woman calling after him, even though she sought his attention with two titles of honor: Lord and Son of David. Men and women did not speak in public in their culture. Her disrespect of cultural rules embarrassed his disciples. They wanted to get her away. As far as Jesus was concerned, she was not part of his mission: Canaanite meant she was not part of Israel, and Jesus sought the lost ones among them.

The Canaanite woman closed any distance between: she put herself literally in his path. Doing a person homage in their culture meant embracing a person’s knees.3 Picture Jesus short of being tackled. Not only did women and men not speak in public; they did not touch. Jesus was being shamed by her word and then touch. She continued it with her final plea, “Lord, help me.”

Insult was an acceptable way to defend personal honor in their culture: it was a good offenseto use today’s sporting lingo. Dogs was a ready image to use in insult in Jesus’ culture, and he spoke in no unusual manner for his time. The Canaanite woman would not be outdone: “Please, Lord…even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

Jesus recognized belief, faith, is not culture bound. Faith is power to dissolve barriers. Anyone may honor God. Whoever honors God, God honors in return. God’s honor depends on no human controls. The words of Prophet Isaiah, of whom Jesus was so fond, echoed in him: foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord...and hold to my covenant…will be acceptable to the Lord. The Canaanite woman fulfilled in her person the Psalmist’s prophecy that we made ours: May the peoples praise you, O God!

Of the many things we may take from what at first seems only cruel I offer two. First: when we feel we are not getting a hearing from Jesus, recall the Canaanite woman. Though different from Jesus and out of bounds for speaking to him, Jesus listened to her. She was persistent, too. Had she not have been, she may not have won access to him. Second: we easily consider, gauge and even disregard our faith as we would a bar of soap. Faith is no thing: it is our relationship with our triune God; God’s gift to us to honor in our 21st-Century, American fashion.

In your daily 15 minutes with Jesus this week
  • Pause to rest in our triune God.
  • Ask the Canaanite woman to present you to Jesus.
  • Chat with him: praise him for dying and rising for you; thank Jesus for accompanying you when you are not aware of his companionship and for staying near you even when you ignore him.
  • Ask Jesus for grace to know him better and to turn to him more often. 
  • Close your time saying slowing the Lord’s Prayer. His words give us…our daily bread include asking to be more alert to him present with us and to receive graces we may not know we need—graces to free us to live as his more faithful disciples.

Link to this homily’s Spiritual Exercise

  1. Mark 3.8. Map
  2. 1Kings 17.9.
  3. Plutarch vividly described the custom (“knees” are highlighted in blue on this page).


Wiki-images of Canaanite woman PD-US / and by Heretiq of ancient column remains CC BY-SA 2.5

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