Silently Attentive

Silently Attentive

Twentieth Sunday of the Year. fr Timothy Radcliffe draws attention to the silence of Jesus in His encounter with the Canaanite woman.

This is an extraordinary story. This woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter; he objects that he has come only to the lost sheep of Israel. She persists and eventually he does as she asked.

What has happened? One explanation might be that she persuaded Jesus to make an exception. He has a rule but her faith is so strong that he makes an exception for her. ‘I have come only to the lost sheep of Israel and for you.’

There is another way of understanding the story which I think is more convincing. This 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.

So what is happening in this conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is not that he makes an exception. It is a moment in 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.

There 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 lynch mob. 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. This is the silence of endurance. 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 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 is rooted in his silent listening to his Father. St Ignatius of Antioch said that Jesus is the Word that sprung from the silence of the Father. It is the silence in which something new is germinating. As Yeats wrote, ‘Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/ His mind moves upon silence.’

Jesus replies that he is sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and then when she kneels, he says to her that it is not fair for the children’s bread to be given to the dogs. These are not so much refusals of her request as testing the ground. He is feeling his way forward to a new answer, trying out the objections.

It takes time to open our hearts and minds to strangers and see them as brothers and sisters. The pace cannot be forced. We learn to listen to people with accents other than our own, and faces that perhaps look different, discovering how close we are. All this requires a deep interior tranquillity in which in a new way of seeing the world can unfold.

Today we face all sorts of new questions. The financial crisis is forcing many people to question the ethics of our economic system. We are becoming aware of the vast inequalities which are tearing apart our own country. The ecological crisis is provoking new questions about our place in the universe and our obligations to the environment. New scientific discoveries are facing us with all sorts of complex bio-ethical questions that are utterly beyond my comprehension.

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, 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.

fr Nicholas Crowe’s sermon for the Solemnity of the Assumption can be found here.

Readings: Isaiah 56:1,6-7 | Romans 11:13-15,29-32 | Matthew 15:21-28

fr Timothy Radcliffe was Master of the Order of Preachers from 1992 to 2001. A member of the community at Blackfriars, Oxford, he is the author of a number of very popular books and an internationally reputed speaker and retreat-giver.