A reflection by Fr. Idara Otu, MSP, on Mark 7.24-30

Recently in an article in The Catholic Register, the Canadian writer Cummings McLean, observed: “…in Rome strangers cheerfully crush against each other on the bus. But in Toronto, we are amazingly able to keep at least a centimeter apart from each other, even at rush hour. We worship personal space [boundary].” A literary reading of the gospel brings to the fore the issue of boundary.

The encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman occurred in Tyre and Sidon. Jews were not expected there. But Jesus crossed boarders into this Gentile territory seeking isolation. The woman, as a female, a Gentile and a mother of a demon-possessed daughter, shared nothing in common with Jews. She too crossed borders to request Jesus to heal her daughter. Upon meeting at the borderline, their conversation turned to an ancient belief that the Messiah was sent primarily to the house of Israel. Jesus affirms this point when he says, “let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Here, the word “dog” referred to the Gentiles, who were often considered unclean because of their religious practices. The woman challenges this pre-Messianic stereotype saying “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumb.” This response brought down an ancient wall of religious belief that kept them apart and made them outsiders to each other.

One lesson from this story is the openness of Jesus and the woman to meet at the borderline that separated them, their courage to speak, and their humility to listen. From this mutual exchange occurs a miracle and transformation. For the woman, her daughter gains freedom from demonic authority. And for Jesus, his ministry will, henceforth, be extended to more non-Jewish cities.

Our world is characterized by boundaries. Boundaries are essential to personal identity and group distinction. Boundaries are used to affirm the identity of groups, communities, religions or nations. We maintain personal boundaries in order not to be overwhelmed by the identities of others. But the gospel invites us to reflect on what defines these boundaries. Are these boundaries based on the desire to exclude? Are personal boundaries driven by stereotypes, gender biases, or religious beliefs?

The encounter between Jesus and the woman is an example of how Christians should live along borders, feel along borders, and think along borders. Miracles and transformation can occur along borders. But for these to happen one must be open to encounter the other. As missionaries we are called listen to those who live along borders. We are to speak out against all forms of unjust and oppressive boundaries that separate peoples from experiencing God’s unconditional love, degrade their dignity and violate their rights.

On this 10th anniversary of an Ecological Martyr, Sr. Dorothy Stang (1931-2005), who worked selflessly to break the barriers that separated the Brazilians living in the Amazons from their natural environment, we pray in her words: “God give us the wisdom and disposition to help build a world where all have a place with dignity.”