Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.Matthew 15: 28
In today’s gospel of the encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman, we have described the “Culture of Encounter” that Christians, according to Pope Francis, are called to live. To the disciples this Canaanite is both embarrassing and troubling. Yet, although it be at first with the culturally conditioned attitude and tone that would be typical of the time and place, Jesus continues to engage with her. What is striking is that he not only engages with this “foreign woman” but he actually allows himself to be changed by her. In a sense he is bested in an argument by what would have been in his time the most humiliating of others, a Canaanite and a woman.
Adrian van Kaam points out that contained in the word “encounter” is both “in-being” and “counter-being.” The dynamic of encounter is an interaction whose energy is produced by the seemingly contradictory but actually complementary realities of otherness and relatedness. As Jesus and the Woman first speak to each other, it is the otherness that is at the forefront. In many ways, as woman and as enemy, she is culturally and emotionally the extreme representation of the foreigner. Jesus confirms this initial identification: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” His understanding of his life and mission does not include responding to her appeal. As so often in our relationships in the world, the first dynamic that emerges is difference, “counter-being.” Constitutive of who we are is our opposition to the other. Our certainty about our own self-identity lies in the ways that we are separate from others. Even Jesus thinks he is called only to save the lost of the house of Israel, that is, his own people.
The woman’s awareness of her need and vulnerability, however, expresses itself in her assertion of their relatedness, their “in-being.” Somehow she realizes in Jesus one to whom she, cultural “other” that she is, can appeal for human empathy, that heartfelt awareness of the shared need and vulnerability of every human person. She is relentless both because of the depth of her desperation but also, perhaps, of her sense of Jesus’ availability, despite his words. This refusal to be put off by any social construct is called “faith” by Jesus. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
The faith of the woman in this story is what makes it possible for her encounter with Jesus to occur. Personally, I find her behavior almost impossible to identify with. I cannot imagine myself if humiliated by a social, or moral, or intellectual “superior” opening myself yet more to her or him. Should I be addressed as she is by Jesus, I would probably wither and crawl away in shame and rage. I would have lost “faith” in our “common humanity.”
It seems that there are suggested two key dispositions that foster the woman’s faith and perseverance: desperation and love. She is mindless of her own “self-respect” because of her love for her daughter and her desperation at her daughter’s state. It is sometime said that we are not truly human persons until we come to love someone or something more than ourselves. As for me, my lifelong sense of apprehension about my “status” in the eyes of others, my own significance, has always left me too preoccupied with how I am seen by others. An abiding sense of not being acceptable inhibits my willingness to be “a fool for Christ’s sake.” As St. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 4:10, “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” I would far too often be numbered among the Corinthians who must appear wise, strong, and honored. But slowly in life I am learning the ways of love. At least at moments I can forget myself and how I look as I give myself over in faith and hope and love to the true call of the moment.
Secondly, it is the woman’s desperation that impels her to keep appealing to Jesus. Perhaps there is always something desperate about true love. Even as she is rebuffed, the woman is undeterred in her continuing appeal to Jesus. She is the exemplification of the parables of Jesus about prayer and the need for persistence in it. In some ways to speak of being desperate seems quite unspiritual. Wouldn’t faith rather be the attitude that keeps us from desperation? If we have faith, wouldn’t we always have trust that God will take care of things, and so we can remain at peace?
Human life is, at its depth, always a paradox. Jesus says he has never seen such faith as this woman manifests in her refusal to take no for an answer. To live truly from our heart is to be in continual contact with the desperation at the core of our being. As the storm on the sea of Galilee threatens the lives of the disciples, as Jesus sleeps, they cry out “Save us, Lord, for we are perishing.” (Matthew 8: 25) When we are truly alive and awake, we know our own fragility and vulnerability. For all our false self-assurance and independence, we know that to live to the full is to live with the awareness of our own dependence. For all our pretensions to the contrary, we are dependent on God for our next breath, for the healing of our failures and sinfulness, for the strength to be a servant of God’s loving will for the world, to be faithful to our commitments. Without that sustaining and loving presence, we are nothing. So, when we truly experience, as in the sickness of a loved one, the truth of our impotence, we feel desperate. This is an element of faith that we tend to forget in these days of the gospel of self-actualization and prosperity.
And thus, the two dispositions of the Canaanite woman that Jesus recognizes as faith are really complementary. St. Paul does not exaggerate when he says that to truly believe in Christ, to lay our entire lives at Jesus’ feet, makes us a fool in the world. What we value most are the pretenses of competence, power, knowledge, and sanity. To live in faith is to live in the truth that we are really none of these things. To be sure, we act at times with competence, with strength, with knowledge and insight and with sanity, but existentially we suffer from ignorance, helplessness and quite often degrees of madness. We pray wholeheartedly when we pray in spirit and in this truth about ourselves.
As the encounter with God, so the encounter with each other. We don’t finally encounter the “other” because we are magnanimous but because we need each other. The immigrant comes bearing a gift, as does the impoverished person, and the “heretic” and non-believer, as the one who for one socially conditioned reason or another disgusts us. We come to know communion in encounter as we struggle through, by staying with, the counter-being of each other. For at our core, we are all desperate for the love, not only of God but of each other.
The philosopher Enrique Dussel, who hails from Argentina along with the pope, adds much to an understanding of encounter. In his book Introducción a la filosofía de la liberación (Introduction to the Philosophy of Liberation), Dussel explains that two people encountering one another involves action, a give and take. But even more importantly, it involves openness to mystery and relationship. To encounter another person is to realize that no matter the depths to which we may get to know each other, the well of mystery will never be exhausted, a strange fact that long-time married couples know well. Interpersonal encounter in the Christian sense is thus both active and relational—it occurs between two or more persons or between a person and God. An encounter between two people is a graced experience in which one realizes a strange paradox: the seemingly contradictory human situation of the utter connectedness within which we live in solidarity with each other and at the same time the wild otherness which makes us our own beings living in solitude.Thomas J. Eggleston,” What Pope Francis Means By A Culture of Encounter”, Houston Catholic Worker, July 1, 2015
Dussel, a Catholic, notes that only sentient beings may encounter one another. He explains that a person may look at an insect, even examine it under a microscope; the bug might, in turn look back, but the person and the bug do not have the experience of actively encountering each other because the action lacks a certain depth and mystery of which the insect is incapable. The mystery of an encounter occurs between persons. On top of that, the philosopher notes that there is an analogous quality to encountering the other. Certainly to encounter another person is to experience the grace of the living God. But in encountering “the other,” the event also mimics our encounter with the Divine Other. To put it another way: to encounter a living-breathing friend, to embrace a child, or to share a meal with a hungry person is to have an experience which is in essence the way which we encounter the intangible and invisible God.
The Culture of Encounter is simply then, the structuring of a society in which persons encounter each other and because of this are able to encounter the living God.