Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Dog Woman

A Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

The Canaanite Woman is one of my favorite stories—people—in the entire New Testament. I remember puzzling over Our Lord’s seemingly callous treatment of her when I was a child. Back then I knew that repeated pleas – or pestering – adults for something never got you anywhere. The Gospel passage didn’t make sense, but then much about the mysterious world of grown-ups doesn’t mean anything to us when we’re still young. And sadly, so many of us learn all too soon to stop asking for what we need, to stop trying. We give up and shut up. We become everything the Canaanite Woman was not.

Which is precisely the point of the story. There was a time I thought Jesus was just toying with her, testing her tenacity, so to speak … and to a certain extent He is. In Consolation for My Soul, Thomas Á Kempis writes,

‘Remember that verse in Matthew? 'One doesn't take bread baked for the tots and toss it to the dogs' (15:26) That's what the Lord said to that Canaanite woman. She was one of those impossible pagans with outrageous requests who dogged His footsteps while on earth. The Evangelist almost called her that Canine woman. But rereading that passage, I find my wretched state now matches hers then. She replied humbly but firmly then; I can only hide behind her skirts.’

The dog woman?! I can think of a word – which starts with a “B”, means ‘female dog’ and is even less complimentary. Can’t you almost read that into what the Apostles say about her? She was so annoying!

And yet! This was her daughter! Many years ago when my first daughter was born, something happened to me; I changed radically. This new little helpless being was placed into my arms and suddenly I grew fangs. I distinctly remember telling my husband a few weeks later that although I didn’t believe in violence, I was sure I could – and would – do anything necessary to protect my new baby.

So to the Dog Woman, it didn’t matter what anyone thought about her or called her. It didn’t matter if Our Lord ignored her. She wouldn’t be put off. She was there to do whatever was necessary. But it was more even than love for her daughter, dogged determination and a lack of pride that kept her one step behind Jesus. It was her faith. She knew He, and He alone, represented healing for her daughter. So she was willing to take whatever scraps Jesus would throw her, knowing that His castoffs would be better than anything else anyone could offer.

And for that, Christ honors her by calling her, “Woman”. I’m not sure, but I don’t think Jesus calls another “Woman” in the Gospels besides His Mother. To share anything with Our Lady is indeed to be esteemed highly. But then Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother." (Matthew 12:50)

Pray for me Dog Woman! I desire to have a faith as strong, humble and beautiful as yours.

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