Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro

Aug 18, 2002

Twentieth Sunday Ordinary Time 2002

Is 56: 1, 6-7, Rom 11: 13-15, 19-32, Mt 15: 21-28

Matthew 15:21-28 "Please Lord for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of the masters": This week’s Gospel of Jesus’ exorcism of a Canaanite woman’s daughter is one of the most shocking encounters with Jesus told in the Gospels. This story is found in two of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Mark (Mark 7:24-30). It was apparently too shocking for Luke’s predominately Gentile audience. Matthew follows Mark’s narrative context plus he contributes his own additions, which serve to enhance this dicey encounter.

Narrative Context: This week’s Gospel takes place right after Jesus had a major face-off with Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem. They were sent to check out Jesus’ Jewish orthodoxy. These Pharisees and Scribes raised the issue of Jesus’ disciples not washing their hands before meals (Matthew 15:1-20), a small issue. Jesus never answers their question but immediately insults them, accusing them of putting the monetary upkeep of the Temple over parental obligations. Jesus right out calls them "hypocrites". He then assembles a crowd with the Pharisees and Scribes as witnesses and gives a major position statement that directly challenges the teaching of Moses regarding clean and unclean foods. Essentially, Jesus wipes out the dietary laws found in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14). Radical, challenging and provocative stuff!

Location: This is where this week’s Gospel begins. Jesus’ "in your face" confrontation with the Jerusalem Pharisees and Scribes was so combatant that he and his disciples had to leave the area and find a safe space to hide out until the heat died down. The text says he went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This was pagan territory, most likely in the rural areas away from the cities of Tyre and Sidon. This was traditionally a hostile region for Jews, the home of ancient enemies (Matthew 11:21), an ideal location for Jesus and his disciples to hide out, away from any Jewish authorities.

The Encounter: And behold 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" (Matthew 15:22). There is a whole lot of "not suppose to"s happening in this verse. In this social and public setting, pagans and Jews got no reason to talk to each other, especially a Canaanite woman and a Jewish man. Canaanite and Jewish animosity goes all the way back to the times when the Jewish tribes and nation settled the Holy Land. The Canaanites were one of the original peoples dispossessed of their lands to make room for the Jews. There were long-standing ethnic, cultural, economic, political and religious reasons that made this public breach by this woman’s bold intrusion unacceptable.

Plus, she is a woman! Double the "not suppose to"s . Women in Jesus’ day were never allowed to talk to adult males in public except their closest relatives and only if spoken to. They would certainly not initiate a public conversation with a non-relative, let alone a hated foreigner. The text says, "Behold a Canaanite woman", as well it should. This was a startling occurrence. (It must also be noted that this no-name Canaanite woman is the first woman to speak in Matthew’s Gospel.)

Actually, she is not really speaking, she is shouting, "Have pity on me." How she comes to know that Jesus, a Jewish itinerant teacher and miracle worker, was in the area is never told. But that she is willing to diminish her own ethnic, cultural, political and religious heritage to humble herself before Jesus is truly shocking. Her love for her daughter must have been very great.

The Dialogue: At first, it seemed there would be no dialogue at all. Jesus simply ignored the woman’s pleading. The woman would not be so easily dismissed. She keeps repeating her request all the more. A public spectacle was developing. The last thing Jesus and his disciples needed to happen since they were trying to lay low and out of sight. Finally Jesus’ disciples came up to him and said, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us". They don’t really care about the woman or what Jesus would decide to do about her request. They just want Jesus to stop her from bringing public attention to them. Jesus replies to his disciples, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel". Jesus owed this woman nothing. His mission was to Israel. His focus was clear; nothing was going to distract him.

The woman takes this opportunity to up the ante. The text says she came up to Jesus and did him homage. Her humiliation was complete. She is a Canaanite and she turns her back on all that makes her who she is and does homage to this Jew, her people’s hated enemy. She prostrates herself before Jesus as if he were God. She publicly begs, "Lord, help me."

Jesus could no longer ignore her. He tells her, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs". Basically, Jesus repeats what he said to his disciples but in a very insulting and degrading way to the woman. Jesus’ words, "the dogs" could just as easily be translated "a little bitch". There is no way to read these words and make them sound nice. These were mean and hurtful words in any language, in any context. Jesus must not have been having a good day.

This story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is directly connected with Jesus’ confrontation with the Jewish authorities from Jerusalem. This was a difficult time for Jesus. Jesus was occupied with the troubles he helped stir up with his own people. A review of his encounter with the Pharisees and Scribes shows that he clearly took an aggressive posture. They came asking about "washing hands", a small issue, and Jesus responds by calling them hypocrites and then gives a major teaching in which he wipes out part of the Mosaic Laws. There was good reason for Jesus and his disciples to be on the run and for Jesus being self-absorbed and preoccupied.

By the time Jesus encounters the Canaanite woman he was still caught up in the emotions of his face-to-face confrontation with the Jewish authorities. His whole focus is to the center of his Jewish world, Jerusalem and the "powers that be" that run the Temple and lead his people. Jesus’ peripheral vision was impaired. When the Canaanite woman confronted him, all he could see was a Jewish ethnic-religious stereotype, a pagan Canaanite. When you see stereotypes instead of people, the people are easily dismissed or ignored. (And in wartime, they are easily killed.)

At this moment in the story, the Canaanite woman could have got up off her knees, called Jesus a fraud, kicked the dirt from her sandals in Jesus’ direction and walked off justified.

Instead, she puts into practice the very thing Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42) and responded to Jesus’ insult as if she were offering him her "right cheek", or handing him her "cloak" or walking for him the "extra mile." She tells Jesus, "Please Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters".

Jesus wakes up from his Jewish-ethnic-religious stupor. He finally sees the Canaanite woman for the human being she really was, made in the image of God with as much claim to the salvation he was sent to bring as any Israelite. In fact, she had a greater claim for her faith was great! It was greater than that of the Jewish authorities who had ‘no faith’ and greater than the disciples who had ‘little’ (Matthew 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). Jesus tells the woman, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish". And her daughter was healed that hour. This is the only time in Matthew’s Gospel that the word great is used to describe someone’s faith.

PUSHY FAITH: Faith is often seen as a passive action, one that comes in difficult times when acceptance of "the way things are" like terminal illness or a death in the family is called for. And there are valid times for such faith. However, this kind of passive acceptive faith can also be an excuse for not doing anything, especially in the face of great social injustice. In situations like this, the claim of passive accepting faith is bad faith if it’s any faith at all.

The Canaanite woman in this week’s Gospel demonstrated a pro-active type faith. Her active persistence, humility, and wit won the day. And it earned her the singular distinction in Matthew’s Gospel as a person of Great Faith. By her example, we learn that Great Faith is faith that seeks justice persistently. It doesn’t give up. It uses the nonviolent weapons of actively seeking the truth with humility and creativity. People of Great Faith do not seek to beat their opponent with a win or lose outcome. Instead they invite their opponents (In the Canaanite woman’s case, Jesus) to a higher level of humanity, to a win-win outcome. This week’s Gospel teaches us that Great Faith is a pushy faith that doesn’t give up.

BEHIND EVERY GOOD MAN IS A GREATER WOMAN, OFTEN MORE THAN ONE: Once I was able to shed my sexist-reading lenses from my reading of the Gospels, I was amazed by the powerful influence that women played in the formation of Jesus’ message and self understanding. This week’s Gospel story of the Canaanite woman is an excellent example of the influence women had in Jesus’ life.

One of the basic tenets of Jesus’ radical kingdom message is that the blessed of God are the poorest, weakest, and most marginal people in society. Matthew’s Beatitudes is just one of many Gospel accounts of this Divine bias. One of Jesus’ biggest complaints with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem was how they neglected the poor and marginal in favor of the rich and powerful. Along comes this Canaanite woman with her Pushy Faith and Jesus is forced to rethink his whole understanding of who really is the marginal and blessed by God. It is said that behind every good man there is a woman. In Jesus’ case, there were many great women in his life, his mother Mary at the top of the list.

A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF A WOMAN OF GREAT FAITH: Born into a sexist society, in some ways the best I can claim is that I’m a recovering sexist. There have been many women who have helped me along my journey to seeing beyond the sexist biases I was brought up in to seeing women as equal human beings. It was not easy for me at first.

The woman of the greatest faith that I encountered in this journey is my life-long friend, former lover and fiancée Jacquee Dickey. I met Jacquee in Iowa City the fall of 1975. I was in my third year of major seminary at Aquinas Institute of Theology in Dubuque, Iowa. I was doing a ministry internship at Center East, the University of Iowa Catholic Newman Center. Jacquee was a recent graduate from Northwest Missouri State working at a Public Radio Station in Cedar Rapids, living in Iowa City and attending Center East as her place of worship. She was a beautiful, vivacious, passionate, intelligent, articulate woman. She had a great love for God, the Church, social justice, and service.

I will not deny it, there were chemistry and sparks between us the moment we met. We got to know each other through the Singles Support Group I helped to facilitate. One way we connected was our interest in the Catholic Worker movement. I had just finished spending a summer at the Davenport, Iowa, Catholic Worker. Jacquee had spent time at the Kansas City, Missouri, Catholic Worker. I think I first realized I was falling in love with her at a dinner in Iowa City with a May issue of the NYC Catholic Worker newspaper spread out on the table discussing the Catholic Worker’s positions one line at a time. The NYC Catholic Worker published the CW positions every year in their May issue.

Back then, I was still very naïve about how sexism worked in the Catholic Church. Jacquee told me that upon graduating from Northwest Missouri State with honors she wrote a letter to her Bishop volunteering to work in the diocese for a year. She told the Bishop she was willing to do anything. She told me she never heard from her Bishop. I was shocked. I told her she should have written to my Bishop, Maurice Dingman. Jacquee stared at me in disbelief and said, "Frank, Bishop Dingman is the bishop I wrote to"! A couple years later I told Bishop Dingman this story. He remembered getting Jacquee’s letter but really did not have a clue as to what to do with her request. Her letter got lost in one of the piles of unanswered letters in the Bishop’s office.

When it came time for me to get ordained to the deaconate at the end of my third year of seminary, I dropped out. I was in love with Jacquee, a problem with the Catholic Church, and I did not feel the Church was ready for the peace and justice resistance-type priest I felt called to be. Instead of getting ordained, I helped start the Des Moines Catholic Worker in August of 1976. I did this with the full approval and personal support of Bishop Dingman. You do not need a bishop’s permission to start a Catholic Worker. On the other hand, it does not hurt to have it.

Jacquee moved to the Kansas City, Missouri, Catholic Worker. After a year apart, I begged her to join me at the Des Moines Catholic Worker. She reluctantly took me up on my offer and my real education on what it means to be a woman in our society and in our church began. Jacquee was a born leader. She loved the Church and longed to minister. She was great with people. She had an enormous capacity for compassion. She was quick to see and act on injustices both personally and social. She saw things happening inside people and inside communities long before I did. Plus she had a real special link to God, an inner resource that could only be described as holy. Because of my relationship with Jacquee, I began to see the world through her eyes, and it was not always nice. I knew that the women we served at the Catholic Worker were often victims of sexual and physical abuse. Jacquee helped me see that this was true for all women in our society, not just our guests.

Ours was not an easy relationship. Though we agreed on so many things, we also had the darndest time getting along. I think we were publicly engaged to each other on three different occasions only to have one or the other of us break it off. We did three years of counseling together. At one point in our relationship, Jacquee slowly sank into a depression. The hardest day of my life at the Catholic Worker was the day I had to carry Jacquee in my arms out of the house and to the Broadlawns Psych Ward. She was unable to move. She refused to take drugs and fought a noble battle out of her depression and back to health. She was not able to return to the Catholic Worker. That’s when I realized how fragile and how strong Jacquee was at the same time.

As the years went by, a couple of things became apparent to me about the relationship with Jacquee. I came to understand that I was not meant to be married. The drive to be a family man with children was not strong in me. I frankly am too damned independent to make the necessary sacrifices to be in a committed coupled relationship. And though I loved Jacquee very much, I did not want to be married.

The other thing I discovered about Jacquee and me was that we were both called to be priests in our Church. I have no doubt about this. When I decided to re-opt into the seminary process, Jacquee felt a great sense of betrayal by me because I was taking advantage of a sexist system that would recognize my call to priesthood but would not recognize hers.

As I went back to seminary at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota, to get ordained on a full ride scholarship paid for by the diocese, Jacquee enrolled in the Masters of Divinity program at Notre Dame, Indiana, and went into debt. She graduated in three years with her Master of Divinity, the same ministry degree that is required for Catholic ordination to the priesthood. She got a job at a local Catholic parish in South Bend and was beginning a career as a lay minister in the Church.

Then some bad luck came her way. She was in a car accident and permanently injured her back. She then contracted a rare immune illness that affected her energy levels and part of her brain. Finally, she is a breast cancer survivor. She has known great pain and suffering most of her adult life. She suffers under the dual social stigmas of illness and poverty. She is on SSI. She barely survives from day to day. She lives in a small two-bedroom house in a poor, racially-mixed inner city neighborhood in South Bend. She is always up against it financially, trying to work with government welfare agencies that are entirely inadequate to address her physical needs. On the average, Jacquee has two to three working hours a day to do what she has to do to survive. The rest of the time she must rest or sleep.

Still, she lives her poverty with dignity and class. Jacquee is an artist and a poet and her little house reflects it. Furnished in contemporary St. Vincent DePaul, it’s well kept with many books and paintings and much art. She manages to grow a garden every year. She may have left the Catholic Worker but the Catholic Worker did not leave her. Her home is a safe house for many neighborhood kids. She is a local activist for her neighborhood’s needs.

Mostly though, Jacquee prays. Her years of illness and poverty have turned her best spiritual resources on an inward journey to God. She long ago let go of the idea of the Church ever recognizing her call to the priesthood – a greater loss for the Church than for Jacquee. She is a true urban mystic and spiritual director.

It took a few years after our break up before Jacquee allowed me back into her life. We are good friends now. It is a friendship I highly value. Through the years, she’s become one of my best supporters, especially when I am in jail. I have come to rely a great deal on her powerful prayers. In many a tough spot that I’ve been in, I felt the powerful prayers of Jacquee sustaining me. Anyone who knows Jacquee Dickey of South Bend, Indiana, knows a woman of GREAT FAITH!