The Scriptures present with rigorous honesty the lives of the men and women whose stories they tell. The Scriptures show them at their best and at their worst, with makeup and waking up.

An example is David. The Scriptures introduce the young shepherd who slays the giant Goliath with a single stone from his shepherd’s bag and captures the heart of his people. They present David as the king who leads the people in worship and desires to build a house for God to dwell in. They also detail the steps as David spies a beautiful woman bathing, takes her and finally places into the hands of her husband a letter commanding he be stationed in an area of battle where he will be killed, as David seeks to cover up his adultery.

Tomorrow, churches that share the Sunday Scriptures will hear the Gospel of Matthew’s account of how Jesus responds to a Gentile woman who seeks the healing of her daughter. (Matthew 15: 21-28) As the story begins, Jesus “withdraws to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” Tyre and Sidon lie outside of Palestine, the Jewish homeland; they are Gentile territory.

A woman of the area approaches Jesus and begs for the healing of her daughter, who is possessed by a demon. Jesus responds with a coldness that goes beyond being annoyed at her encroaching upon his retreat. Jesus responds: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel...” The woman is not “one of us.”

In what a scholar describes as “one of the most touching actions in all of the gospels,” the woman kneels before Jesus and begs: “Lord, help me.” Again Jesus refuses: ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (vs 26)

Jesus’ culture was not one in which peoples’ hearts warmed as they shared pet pictures. Dogs were feral animals who scavenged for food. Jews referred to Gentiles as “dogs.”

As a mother, the Gentile woman knows that when children eat, varying degrees of the food end up on the floor and not on the table. And so she responds: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Mark’s gospel says: “... the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (7:28)

As the woman humbles herself for the sake of her daughter, her humility and wit disarm Jesus’ hostility. He responds with respect, “Woman,” and the ultimate compliment that he pays to anyone: “Great is your faith.” And her daughter is healed “instantly.”

What lessons can we learn from this encounter between Jesus and the Gentile woman? The first is a lesson that every man learns: “Don’t argue with a woman, because you are going to lose.” If I were Jesus’ life coach, I would say: “Jesus, stick to arguing with the Pharisees — you’re batting 1.000 there. But don’t argue with the women, because you strike out every time — with this Gentile woman and with your mother over the wine at that wedding in Cana.”

Beyond the obvious, the Scriptures show Jesus as he reacts to the Gentile woman with racial prejudice. During my stay of several months in Jerusalem, I was walking down a side street alongside an ultra-religious Jewish man (the term used in Jerusalem for Jewish men who dress in a black suit, hat and shoes with a white shirt.) He was speaking to a companion, and while I wasn’t listening in on the conversation, I heard the word “goy,” the term for a non-Jew. Like me, the woman is a goy.

The difference in how Jesus responds to the woman before and after his conversation are like night and day. As rude as he is to the woman before, he is respectful after. As Matthew’s Gospel continues, Jesus at the Last Supper will offer his blood to be poured out “for {the} many,” that is, for all people. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sends the apostles into the world: “Go ye therefore and teach all nations... (Matthew 28:18 KJV).” But we pause here. The Gentile woman’s willingness to suffer insult for her daughter’s healing breaks down a wall between Jew and Gentile in the heart of Jesus.

In the letter to the Ephesians Paul writes: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility ... that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (2:13-16)

How many invisible walls inside peoples’ hearts divide both nations and families? The Scriptures show how Jesus undergoes the change of mind and heart that he preaches: “Repent, change your whole way of thinking and behaving, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” They also show this night-and-day transformation that Paul undergoes, from one who is responsible for the death of followers of Jesus, like Stephen, only to become the Apostle to the Gentiles, who opens the Church to all people.

Perhaps the Scriptures show us Jesus and people like Paul and Mary Magdalene at their worst, so that we can see how they change. The Scriptures encourage us, I believe, to practice this same rigorous honesty about ourselves as well, so that others can likewise see us at our worst and how God’s Holy Spirit changes us to be mature disciples of Jesus.

Fr. Ray Clark is a priest of the Diocese of Owensboro. His writing reflects his own opinion and not necessarily that of the Catholic Church.

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