Friday, August 15, 2014

Dignity in Begging

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Times Year A

Can there be dignity in begging? I guess the first answer that springs to your mind is a definite “No!” Begging is the most undignified, the most degrading and humiliating act that we can possibly think of. Even those who are responsible for helping us dispose our trash are much better off – at least they can retain some dignity in claiming that they are doing an honest job. But then again, there’s a Japanese saying that goes like this, “It’s a beggar’s pride that he’s not a thief.” We’ve often been taught from childhood, “Never beg, never plead.” Begging is for losers. Begging means that you want something for free, and are asking the person to give up something for free, with nothing in return for it. And so, frequently, beggars are disdained or despised, labelled as lazy and worthless. Perhaps, it would be no exaggeration to suggest that begging is the most disgraceful ways of earning livelihood and we would consider that only the weak, the slothful, and the shameless would stoop so low as to engage in this.

But did it ever occur to you that when someone begs, he’s begging for more than just loose change or financial assistance. Most of us fail to realise that we sometimes end up begging in moments of desperation. Perhaps, what we really are begging for is to be treated with kindness. We are begging for someone to understand. Ultimately, we are begging for love and attention. It’s no fun, though. In fact, we hate the shame and the embarrassment that comes with having to debase ourselves to get what we one. But, we desperately want to be treated as a human person, and so it takes great courage and great sacrifice to humiliate ourselves in order to get that respect.

Today, we see Jesus meeting a Canaanite woman who comes begging him to heal her little daughter who is possessed by an unclean spirit. The Canaanite woman, instead of losing her dignity in groveling at the feet of Jesus, demonstrated astounding perseverance and dignity when opposition arrived from the disciples. The disciples were protective of Jesus and wished to ensure that he had much needed rest and privacy after a long tiring journey. But, the Canaanite woman showed that she had the poise of presence, the perseverance in character and the peace of mind that no one could fake, shake or take. If the woman pleaded relentlessly, the disciples were equally hard on Jesus to turn her away. Both factions, unfairly matched (12 against 1), were busy waging a “begging” war. Her fortitude would prove victorious. She will not be silenced by the disciples; she will not be deflected politely by Jesus' gentle bit of self definition when he says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  Instead, she keeps on pushing; she won't stay in her place.  So Jesus speaks to her as he had been taught.  "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 

The harsh words of Jesus would certainly shock many of us. Not the politest thing to say to a friend, what more a stranger, and a woman at that. The aloofness of Jesus is also equally disturbing as this reduces the woman to the humiliating level of having to beg at his feet. Some would even suggest that Jesus, having been conditioned by his own Jewish background, was a bigot and a racist. We are offended today because we are preoccupied with our own innate dignity and worth. But perhaps, the actions and words of Jesus are meant to be catechetical. He was teaching his own disciples an important lesson using this life situation to demonstrate what he had been teaching them all along. Thus, the story becomes a living parable.

In the usual way, the gospels often introduce irony as a device to awaken us to the reality of Kingdom of God. Here, the woman is described as a Canaanite. Canaan was the old name for the land of Palestine or Israel before the time of Abraham. If anyone was deserving of being a child of the soil, a bumiputra, it would have to be her. The Canaanites declined in numbers and many were forced into exile with the invasion of the new migrants, the Israelites. It’s interesting how we are witnessing a replay of this tragedy in the ongoing conflict between the Jewish state of Israel and the Palestinian homeland. Though, the Jews were fond of calling all Gentiles “dogs,” it would appear that this Canaanite woman was indeed a true daughter of Israel.

Her right to such an honour did not come from birth. Neither did it come from her ancestral claims to the land. It came from her faith, which epitomises the faith of a true disciple as enunciated in the Sermon on the Mount. She was part of the True Israel that Jesus had come to establish, as opposed to the Old and False Israel. Membership in the True Israel did not come from lineage or the purity of one’s blood line nor did it even come from rigorous and scrupulous observance of the Law. Ultimately, the most essential criterion for membership in the True Israel, according to the Gospel of St Matthew, is that the person, the disciple, listens to, adheres and finally does whatever he has learnt from Jesus, and in observing all that has been taught by Jesus, does the will of the Father perfectly. So rather than be excluded by Jesus’ professed mission to the lost sheep of Israel, the Canaanite woman is revealed indeed to be one of the targets and beneficiaries of his mission.

A superficial glance would have left us with one of three options. We can choose to a) respect her courage and tenacity or b) pity her for her predicament of having to suffer the humiliation of begging or c) judge her negatively as weak for having stooped so low to get what she wanted. But there is another angle left untouched. The Canaanite woman is the embodiment of the reversal of values in the Beatitudes that sits at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. She helps us see the profound blessedness of the poor in spirit, the weak and the marginalised. Rather than being regarded as “blessed” and the “meek” inheritors of the earth, the poor are generally scorned as weak, slothful and diseased. Here, it is her poverty that will show up her blessedness.

The Canaanite woman has proven to us that there is dignity in begging, it is the beatitude that comes from being counted as poor in spirit. She had rid herself of pride, she had sacrificed every ounce of her dignity, because she knew that Jesus was her last and only hope. There was no need to act high and mighty. She may be accused of pawning her dignity, but she understood that the man who stood before her would be her true source of dignity and power. Without having heard the Sermon on the Mount, she came with the humble, repentant, mourning, meek and seeking heart that God requires for entry into His Kingdom. Jesus said in Matthew 5:3-6, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Because of her great faith, Jesus granted her request and her little daughter was delivered from the demon. But the woman’s appeal to Jesus was the turning point not only for the well-being of her demon-possessed daughter, but also for the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s kingdom. She proved to the disciples and to all of us, that there is not only great dignity in begging in faith, but there can also be salvation!

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