Twentieth Sunday of the Year – A

The protagonist in today’s gospel is a foreigner, an outcast, a woman and very low on the social scale. She is not the type of person you would hang around with in the hope of climbing either social or economic ladders. In the eyes of society, and the apostles, she was a nobody. She is, however, a mother and what shines through in this episode is that mother’s instinct for a daughter who is tormented by a demon.

I go to Modderbee prison about once a month. I have to pass through about eight gates to get to Block F where we celebrate mass. It’s the first gate that catches my attention. There is always a substantial group of visitors there, mostly women, waiting patiently to get in. My hunch is that in the main, these women are mothers whose sons are inside. 

This reminds me of a quote of John Lonergan who was one of the more enlightened governors of prisons in Ireland. He once made this statement about mothers.

“In all my years in the prison service I have not met five prisoners who have not had a good relationship with their mothers. The mothers never fail to visit and they never fail to take responsibility. We see them every day, mothers with maybe more than one drug addict in the family, queuing to visit the son in jail, living out their lives with no resources, no support, nothing. 

“It is unbelievable, considering the amount of pressure that mothers come under and the amount of torture they have to go through because their children get into trouble and into crime.”

This brings us to the mother in today’s Gospel. Scripture scholars say that today’s incident is part of a slow transformation in the mission of Jesus. He had sent his disciples only to the lost sheep of Israel, but here he is in Gentile land. This story comes between the feeding of the five thousand, which is usually taken to be symbolic of the mission to the Jews, and the feeding of the four thousand, which is seen as pointing to the mission to the Gentiles. Jesus had told the woman there was only enough bread was for the children of the household, and then suddenly there is more than enough bread for everyone, seven baskets full. 

Here we perceive a gradual turning of Jesus to the Gentiles. And at the centre of this is the beautiful moment of his silence. She makes her request and, the gospel says, ‘he did not answer her a word.’ Jesus is silent.

They’re all sorts of silences in the gospels. There is the silence of Jesus as he writes in the earth when the mob bring to him the woman caught in adultery. This is the silence that undoes the murderous passion of the mob ready to lynch her. There is the silence of Jesus during his trial by Pilate. This is the silence of the suffering servant of Isaiah, who opens not his mouth. There is the silence of the women when they find the empty tomb. They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid. This is the silence of fear. And then there is this silence of Jesus faced with the woman.

This silence is not a rebuff. He is silent because he is listening to her. It would have been natural for Jesus to think according to his upbringing and dismiss this woman as a gentile and outside God’s plan of salvation. But in that moment of silence he began to see things differently. Here is a woman with all the beautiful strong instincts of a mother caring only for her child. In this silence Jesus began to see with his Father’s eyes that all people are children of God; all are made in God’s image. And so he opened his heart to this woman and praised her for her faith.

It takes time to open our hearts and minds to strangers and see them as brothers and sisters. The pace cannot be forced. It requires a deep interior tranquillity and a new way of seeing in the world. We will only find our way forward to new and true answers if we learn how to be silent. We need silence in which to attend to those who question; silence in which to begin to see God in the stranger as well as the friend; and silence to attend to God and his Word. New questions can be frightening. We have to resist the temptation of the disciples, which is to get rid of the question, not to even entertain it. Just give her what she asks and she will leave us alone! We need that contemplative silence in which, by the grace of God, the new can happen in our lives.

Sunday, 17th August 2014

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