Christ and the Canaanite Woman [c.1784 by Germain-Jean Drouais]
Christ and the Canaanite Woman [c.1784 by Germain-Jean Drouais]

Once upon a time, I ran around the Araneta Coliseum for my life. That was right after a particularly heated NCAA game and I found myself alone outside, which in those heady days of our youth, was not wise. A gang of stoned, red-eyed fanatics from the opposing school chanced upon me and gave chase until I found refuge in a car with friends inside. Alas, just as in those zombie movies, the car was eventually surrounded by these wildlings. Long story short, sober minds from the opponent school prevailed and managed to save us from being bitten alive and thus transformed into zombies ourselves.

Even if the UAAP is no longer testosterone-charged as it was in those days (thank God for the women), I still cannot for the life of me understand the tribal wars of the fraternities. Perhaps violence is taught early on when the initiates are made to endure the barbaric hardships of hazing. And once they gain citizenship, many are invariably trapped in a savage mood of disdain or hatred for their rivals outside. Ironically, barbarian is the name they give outsiders.

In the Gospel story today, a common enemy, a barbarian, a Canaanite woman invades the company of Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter who is “tormented by a demon.” Even if the outsider acknowledges him as “Lord, Son of David”, she is met with silence. When the disciples advise him to get rid of her, he proclaims that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When the foreigner persists and calls him “Lord” once more and does him homage (as a believer would), he adds salt to injury saying, “it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Silence, rebuff, insult. Three strikes to rejection. What was he thinking? Not even Pope Francis would do such a thing to a woman in need. Unless of course he was once a teacher. I used to do something similar with my students: instead of telling them bluntly they were wrong, I would lead them down their own path of wrong thinking until they themselves would see the folly or absurdity of their ideas. In math and logic, reductio ad absurdum (or “proof by contradiction”) was a way to argue your case by assuming the opposite and showing the absurd consequences in the end.

Only, in this story, it was the Lord who was trying to be absurd and, wittingly or not, was setting himself up for that woman’s clincher in the end. Sorry woman, I am exclusive to the club of Israel; therefore it is not proper to take food away from the members and waste it on the dogs (an ancient derogatory image for those who were undiscerning in culinary and other things that mattered then). Crude indeed, but somehow subtle too.

What was he thinking? He was thinking: engage me woman, take me down the path of my thinking; surprise me, take me down.

Unfazed, the woman does take him on: sir yes sir, we are dogs, but even dogs and non-members are fed the leftovers. So you are not really that exclusive. Touché.

What was she thinking? She was hardly thinking at all. She could only see the face of her daughter. She was only worrying over the fate of her child; she was just afraid of demons taking over. She only knew the love she was bearing inside, and she was letting that love make way for an Outsider to come into her life.

Pray for the triple graces of humility and boldness and faith. These three graces seem to dwell readily in those barbarians who love deeply and well. The humility to take in the silence, rebuff, and insult. The boldness to take on God and surprise him. And the faith to take down fences and insist on our shared citizenship in heaven.

In the Epistle to Diognetus (ca 2nd century), there is a powerful description of the manner of Christians and how we are all of us foreigners even in our own land:

“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”

Be not alarmed therefore when demons or wildlings give chase and surround you. Remember who you love and for whom you live. Let love give way to humility and boldness and faith, the way it did for that Canaanite barbarian.

We are all of us citizens of heaven, in the sight of our Lord and of that heathen woman.

[by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ]

jet-villarinAbout Jett Villarin, SJ
Fr. Jett is a Filipino Jesuit priest and scientist, who is the university president of Ateneo de Manila University. He received the National Outstanding Young Scientist award in 2000, and the Outstanding Book Award for “Disturbing Climate” in 2002. He is also an active member of several local and international environment and climate committees, such as the United Nations’ Consultative Group of Experts for Developing Countries, and the Inter-Agency Committee on Climate Change, among others.

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