Reflection for Sunday, August 30th by Fr. Andre Boyer
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
For printable version: 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Homily
For years I have loved the Jesus of the Gospels who shatters social boundaries and cultural codes, who deconstructs the religious apartheid of clean and unclean, saint and sinner, powerful and marginalized.
This dangerously off-script Messiah defies the sacred rules and definitions of who are the blessed ones, the sick, the sinners, the honoured guests. He embraces the leper, shares a meal with the drug dealer, affirms the gifts of women, subverts the wisdom of the holy authorities.
In order to better understand what is being said in this part of Mark’s Gospel, we, I believe, should go to the immediate verses that follow and refer to the most barbed portrait of the socially subversive Jesus in the story of Syrophoenician woman.
So to escape the heat of increasingly irate religious leaders, Jesus heads over the border into the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon. His desire foiled by a distraught mother, whose daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit. Mark stresses the woman’s social status, a gentile, a Syrophoenician. Her gender already renders her second class, plus she’s a foreign Other. And her family hosts an unclean spirit. She is triply unclean.
So what did we just learn about cleanliness and uncleanliness?
The exchange between Jesus and the woman is astonishing. He rebuffs her by saying, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus’ response to the woman is shocking, but it needs to be. His interaction with the woman in this way has two purposes. To bring her into the family of God and teach the disciples who is welcome at the table.
Jesus said to the woman, “Let’s be clear about what you are asking here.” I’m sure the disciples felt some smug satisfaction by his response, though they probably were still wondering why he was engaging in conversation at all with the woman. They thought he was putting her in her place. In reality, he’s pushing her to challenge the notion of who is included at the table. She may have come looking for a crumb, a simple healing, a one-time exception to the Jewish rules of Messiah. But with Jesus’ bold words to her, he challenges her to want more. And in her beautiful response, she reveals both her need and her faith. She agrees that she is a dog, not worthy of eating at the children’s table.
Sounds like the sinner’s prayer to me. Jesus needed her to get to this place before healing could be done because he needed to shock her with his love – to take a journey to a place beyond what she expected. She came to him as a dog and left him as a person at the table, given way more than crumbs. He changed the rules.
I can imagine how the disciples’ jaws dropped. This challenged everything they knew about Messiah. Which I think was the real point. In this interaction, we see the gospel in full swing. In offering life to this outcast, he showed that it is faith that saves, not works, not affiliation, not heritage.
I find certain solace in such a reading. For all my supposed progressivism (living in the inner city, solidarity with folks who are poor and homeless, cross-racial work, and community building), what demons of racism and classism linger in my psyche? Or how have I, while nobly crossing many social boundaries, unconsciously constructed my own paradigms of the Unclean Other, the conservative Christian, the corporate elite?
Perhaps the most remarkable implication of the story is that it is the Other, the victim of our oppressive stereotypes, who holds the key to transformation and liberation. I have to let myself be healed by the greater power of those who I often assume need me for their healing.