Thursday, February 9, 2012

Whose Bread?

The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth,
and she begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, "Let the children be fed first.
For it is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs."
She replied and said to him,
"Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children's scraps."
Then he said to her, "For saying this, you may go.
The demon has gone out of your daughter."

Mark 7:24-30

Last Saturday I went to Manhattan to buy some books for my two-year-old nephew and go to church. I took some of my day-off money with me, first to supplement the gift card I had for a Catholic bookstore; and second to put in the collection basket at St. John the Baptist on West 31st Street, the Capuchins' church.

This being a good hour to conduct an examination of conscience, let me confess that I was hoping not to encounter any needy persons on the street. I was completely focused on using the money for gifts and a tithe. I had a mission from which I would not be swerved.

As it turned out, I was not tested that day. I did not meet anyone who asked me for help. I did not, to my knowledge, go out of my way to avoid people. Still, my thoughts betrayed a lack of charity. For this I feel the need to show contrition.

What would I have done if a woman or man called out to me for spare change, fare for the bus or subway, a dollar for coffee or a hot meal, anything? I can think of the stock responses I was rehearsing: "No, not today"; "No, I can't"; "I don't have any change"; "I don't have any money for you." All of these would be true to the letter but false to the spirit. Yes, it is true you could not give today, even though you have money on you, because you had no intention of helping out today. Yes, you cannot give, despite the cash in your wallet, because you are unwilling to help a needy soul. Yes, you do not have change because you are carrying a twenty-dollar bill that you refuse to break and share. Yes, you don't have any money for anyone, and the amount you have on you is irrelevant, because whatever it is in your pocket, you don't want anyone else to have a part of it. How true, all of your excuses, and how wrong.

Lighten up, says my superego. You had a purpose for the money -- your nephew and your church. Intentions are to be followed through. You very well couldn't deny your blood kin and spiritual kin.

Then comes the voice from deeper than my psyche. That's what Jesus said to the Syrophoenician woman. And I had to correct my own Son through her.

Of course, it makes no earthly sense to interrupt the good you are doing for one people, especially your people, to do good for others, especially strangers. That's worldly wisdom. It's not the wisdom of God.

I love my nephew, but one day I must teach him that I will love him better when I love the neighbors nobody loves. I will love him better when I love them to the point of preferring them to him. I will love him better even when I deprive him of good things so they who have none may have a few good things, too. As for the Church and all its faithful, she needs no lessons in charity from me. She is gathered from all the nations, an assembly of Gentiles, a house of Syrophoenicians. We are all dogs scrambling for crumbs under the table that bears the bread of life. For the price of a mustard seed's worth of faith, we have all received grace beyond measure.

The bread I have is mine only as much as I am able to give it, open-handed and without distinction. Lord, send me to the foreign places where I will learn to give faithfully, so that I may take and eat my daily bread with greater joy.

1 comment:

  1. Whatever the purpose of Jesus's original words to the Syrophoenician woman, I have difficulty believing that they came out of a failure to love on Jesus's part, a failure which needed to be "corrected" by his Father. This is the same man who made a hated ethnic minority the hero of one of his parables (the Good Samaritan, though I know it's in another Gospel). Jesus seemed to have a knack for knowing what to say to people in a way that would bring out their true selves, the faith that lay hidden within them. I suspect there was a point that Jesus was making with his words to the Syrophoenician woman, if not to her, than to the disciples who were listening. I find that interpretation more likely, from what else I know of Jesus, than the interpretation that says Jesus at first failed to love as he ought.