The Gospels of Matthew (Mt 15,21ss) and of Mark (Mk 7,25ff) recount the episode of the Canaanite who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. The meeting takes place in the parts of Tire and Sidon, which is a pagan territory also because a transit route for many Mediterranean populations. As we know, dialogue is difficult; Jesus initially shows reluctance to perform the miracle, even saying: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”; however in the end the love and compassion that are in him, united with the faith of the Canaanite woman, obtain what she asks for. Compassion, love and faith make Jesus “give up”.
The Gospel has a similar episode, always in pagan land (chap. 154): Jesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Maritima and He takes the initiative to speak to convicts who have been sentenced to the oar of a Roman military ship moored in port; He doesn’t see them and they don’t see Him either; no one asks for a miracle or anything like that. It is Jesus – against the advice of the apostles, Peter in the lead – who makes a gesture that will prove to be compassionate beyond measure.
Side note: the convicts probably speak different languages, Jesus – my guess – it would seem that he only uses Aramaic, but everyone understands what he says.
In reading the story, one immediately becomes involved, first of all by curiosity: what can He ever say to them, to console them for their terrible tragedy, given that only dead or dying came out of the oar sentence? And what concrete arguments will He have used? In the end will He have achieved any results? We have no answer to this third question, however it is interesting to understand Jesus’ technique, because in some way there is what we now call “pastoral”.
Jesus begins like this: “I want to say, to these unhappy people whom God loves, […] to be resigned in their pain, […] to make it nothing but a flame that will soon release the chains of prison and of life, consuming this poor day which is life in a desire for God. […] To enter the day of God, bright, serene, without fear or languor. You will enter into the great peace, the infinite freedom of Paradise, […] O martyrs of a painful fate, […] only that you know how to be good in your suffering and aspire to God”. Then He talks about God and the soul.
Therefore Jesus speaks to them above all of hope in the one God who loves them; of a destiny in the eternity, this earthly time being in itself unimportant (“this poor day that is life, a dark, stormy day, full of fears and hardships”); and the basic reason: the spiritual soul who has initially seen the Good and always desires It, even if crushed by human vices and wickedness of all kinds. Among people who are beaten on all sides, without hope of any kind and closed in a short truly “infernal” day – in fact dead to every sense of life and living –, Jesus gives a concrete alternative, giving a strong motivation: “Above human justice there is a much higher divine justice. That of the true God, of the Creator of the king and of the slave, of the rock and the grain of sand. He looks at you, you of the oar and you in charge of the crew, and woe to you if you are cruel for no reason”. No difference between powerful and slaves; all equal before God and in His perfect judgment.
Jesus, with great humility, shows his powerlessness in this world, but indicates a way out: “for the freedom and the homeland of the Earth that I cannot give you, poor men slaves of the powerful, I will give you a more high freedom and homeland”. Not the earth, but the Heaven of God and God himself, are the true goal. The rest is secondary.
Finally, with truly unheard-of words even today, this is how Jesus calls them: “convict brothers who do not see my face and whose heart I do not ignore with all its wounds”. They are brothers of him!, and not slaves or worse still.
Here then He presents himself with all the prerogatives of Love: “Remember my Name, children of God who weep. It is the name of the Friend. Say it in your pains. Be sure that if you love me you will have me even if we’ll never see each other on Earth”. Jesus reveals himself as Brother and Friend.
The ending is short, but overwhelming, full of emotion and compassionate love: “I am Jesus Christ, the Savior, your Friend. In the name of the true God I comfort you. Peace be soon upon you”.
We can already find the “clues” of what (many) centuries later will be manifested as “Sacred Heart” and “Divine Mercy”. If it is true that we are not convicts condemned to the oar, it remains however that flesh, world and devil would like to bind us to the pride of the earth, losing all hope, including that of God’s forgiveness. Jesus, through this invitation to an eternal hope, also repeats to us the same things.