One bright Sunday morning, everyone in the town got up early and went to the local church. Before Mass started, the townspeople were sitting in their pews and talking about their lives, their families. Suddenly, Satan appeared at the front of the church. Everyone started screaming and running for the front entrance, trampling each other in a frantic effort to get away from the devil incarnate. Soon everyone was evacuated from the Church, except for one elderly lady who sat calmly in her pew, not moving, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Satan was in her presence. Now this confused Satan a bit, so he walked up to the older lady and said, "Don’t you know who I am?" The woman replies, "I sure do" Satan asked, "Aren’t you afraid of me?" "No, certainly not" said the woman. Satan was a little perturbed at this and queried, "Why aren’t you afraid of me?" The woman calmly replied, "Because I’ve been married to your brother for 48 years." Until quite recently in many cultures around the world events or experiences that had no ready explanation were put down evil forces. This was certainly true in Jesus’ day. Diseases, physical deformities, mental illnesses, accidents, bad weather patterns and defeats in battle were attributed either to God’s vengeance or the work of a demon. Although we no longer hold this to be true, we still hear this line from some people today. The Syro-Phoenician woman considers herself cursed for having a daughter who is tormented by a demon. It is very unlikely that her daughter is possessed by the devil. She probably had a chronic illness that could not be cured. Furthermore, the woman is also considered cursed by others because she is a Gentile, a non-Jew. In fact this story is unsettling and rather unflattering to Jesus on several levels. Because of her ethnicity and religion the disciples do not think she should ask for anything from Jesus. He seems to concur with them. If it wasn’t for the woman’s courage and persistence, she would never have got what she wanted. And by Jesus referring to them as dogs, he seems to agree with the contempt with which the Jews held the Gentiles. Again it is the woman’s quick wit and faith which turns the situation around. She domesticates the racial slur and argues that if she is to considered a dog she is not a wild one but of the house variety where she should be able to enjoy the leftovers. The power of her insight and the rightness of her cause catches Jesus off-guard, her daughter is healed and everyone is taught a lesson about how the Kingdom of God breaks through in the most extraordinary ways. This story also tells us of the power of intercessory prayer. The woman goes through her ordeal not for herself but for her daughter. Her faith in Jesus is the vehicle by which someone else’s life is enriched. So too for us. As Christians many of us regularly tell others, whom we know are in need, that we will pray for them. Often these people, some who do not share our faith, are touched by this kindness. When we make our prayer intercessory, either at home or in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass, it can be our finest hour. We can learn a lot about a parish from its intercessions. It can be the time when we forget about ourselves and our needs for a while and ask for the needs of someone else, even if we don’t know them. This type of prayer has the possibility of helping us place our lives in context and reminding us that while we have a seat at the world’s table others are at our feet scavenging for scraps. The best prayer reminds us that we have to get down and get dirty and work to raise up all of God’s children to the places of honor which everyone deserves. Richard Leonard, S.J.
20th Sunday Ordinary Time