The crumbs alone are enough
By Br John Bernard Church, O.P | Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel may appear harsh, but they elicit from the Syrophoenician woman a statement of true and simple faith, the recognition that all that He deigns to give us is all that we require.
Mass Readings: Genesis 2:18-25; Psalm 127(128); Mark 7:24-30
When I was a child I remember a period when coloured bracelets with initials on them were all the rage among certain Christian groups. The bracelets were wearable reminders of aspects of our discipleship. F.R.O.G was one, fully rely on God, P.U.S.H another – pray until something happens. The most popular was W.W.J.D, what would Jesus do, a reminder to model our lives on that of Christ. It’s undeniably a helpful thought when in a sticky spot, premised on that defining task Christ gives us – love one another as I have loved you.
I was reminded of this in reading today’s Gospel however rather for the opposite reason – not every event in Christ’s life provides an easy model to imitate. In this passage from St Mark, the question that immediately strikes me is how to make sense of Jesus’ reaction to the Syrophoenician woman when she asks for help. He says: “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It comes across as a little rude, and dismissive of someone in need. This impression is no accident of translation – being equated with a dog would have been even more derogatory in Jesus’ own time than it is today.
Jesus’ words here are, at least to me, a little puzzling. And an overly psychological attempt to get inside Jesus’ head, to work out exactly what he was thinking at that moment seems an unhelpful task. It would simply raise questions to which we could never know the answer.
I think rather St Mark is directing us towards the Syrophoenician woman. Her attitude teaches us much about a true and authentic faith: she came to Him immediately after hearing He was nearby, she fell at his feet, she begged Him, and only grew emboldened when He at first appeared to dismiss her request. Her words reveal a deep wisdom in someone who presumably knew so little about the person she was actually speaking to. Face to face with Jesus Christ, she is content with even the least bit of attention from Him, just the crumbs that fall from the table.
I think her wisdom is captured in the final line of that beautiful prayer of St Theresa of Avila: Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices. The Syrophoenician woman was of course acting out of a profound maternal love, seeking healing for her daughter. But the strength of her faith gave her the humility to recognise that whatever comes from Christ, even the crumbs from the table, is good enough. And so too must it be true for us, God alone suffices, for all that He deigns to give us is all that we require.
When prayers seemingly go unanswered perhaps we are tempted towards that same first impression I had of Christ’s words in this Gospel – that he is dismissive of our needs. But such a thought would forget who actually knows what is best for our lives, who knows what it is we really need, who is, as St Augustine puts it, closer to us than we are to ourselves.
It is a message I find incredibly challenging, to truly live as one who knows that God alone suffices, to be simply content with what only He can provide. But the great joy of this message, and the great hope of this Gospel, is found in its ending: if we are able to live with the faith of the Syrophoenician woman, Christ will listen to our cry, and He will answer.