8 February 2007: Thursday of the 5th Week in Ordinary Time
Mark 7, 24-23 Was Jesus insulting of the Syrophoenician woman?
The story must be read with insight. The woman came to Jesus asking help for her daughter. His answer was that it was not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs. This is a little shocking and thus it needs an explanation.
What was the status of dogs in ancient times? If one is called a dog, what does it denote or connote? The dog in ancient times was not a person’s best friend. It was a symbol of dishonor. To the Greek, the dog meant a shameless woman, as bitch is today. To the Jew too, it was equally a word of contempt: “Do not give dogs what is holy.” (Matthew 7,6. Philippians 3,2; Revelation 22, 15).
The word, dog, was in fact the Jewish term of contempt for the Gentiles. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi once gave a parable: A king gave a feast, and placed his guests at the door of his palace. The dogs came out with heads of fatted birds and chickens and calves in their mouths. The guests began to say, “If it is thus with the dogs, how much more luxurious will the meal itself be?” (Kung ganito ang binibigay sa mga Hentil, e di mas marami pang ibibigay sa mga pinili.)
So the dog is a word of insult and contempt. What is the explanation for the passage?
Jesus used the diminutive form of the word dog, that describes the small lap-dogs of the house. In Greek the diminutives are characteristically affectionate. There something like this in Filipino culture: in Bicol, we call our closest friends like this: Hoy, pangit kumusta ka na? (Ugly, how are you?) or “Mga bruha, kumusta na?” In English, the word, rascal, can be an affectionate word to another friend.
Jesus did not refuse the woman. First, he said, the children must be fed (Jews). Israel had the first offer of the Gospel, but they did not accept it; so it was offered to the Gentiles and they accepted it. Thus, the Syrophoenician woman became an example of the openness of the Gentile world to the Gospel.
So we ask ourselves: When the Gospel is offered to us, what is our reaction? Do you “switch to another channel” when the scriptures are read at mass? How do we accept the Gospel of Jesus — for example, love your enemies— do we just shove it aside?