Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
The Faith of a Canaanite Woman
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
When I was in seminary, one of my classmates preached a sermon on this text in our preaching class, and it was one of the most memorable sermons I heard in the class. (He’s now a member of our denomination’s staff.) In the sermon, he said that lots of people hate this passage because Jesus seems to be calling the woman and her child ‘dogs.’ He said we think that was impolite on Jesus’ part, and that we secretly think Jesus should have been better behaved about it. We want to domesticate Jesus. He said a part of our minds says, “Here, Jesus. Stay, Jesus. Sit, Jesus.”
In the story, Jesus and his disciples had traveled northwest to “the region of Tyre and Sidon.” This was an area along the Mediterranean coast that was outside the area where Jesus did most of his ministry. Matthew doesn’t tell us why Jesus traveled to the area. I suppose it’s possible he had just gone to rest and relax at the shore. The gospels say the crowds that came out to hear him made it hard for Jesus to get any rest in Judea and Galilee.
Most of the population in the area where the story takes place was Phoenician or Canaanite. A Canaanite woman starts to follow Jesus around, crying out for healing for her daughter, who she says is suffering from demonic possession. (And you might remember that in that time there wasn’t much understanding of mental illness, so it’s possible that was the girl’s actual problem. We only get the mother’s diagnosis.)
But there’s one interesting thing about the way the woman calls out to Jesus. She addresses him as “Lord, Son of David.” Now, for a typical Canaanite woman, it would be unusual to know that the Hebrew Messiah to come was to be descended from David. It would be even more unusual to identify an itinerant rabbi visiting from Galilee as being that Messiah. So either she had done some checking about who Jesus was, or the Holy Spirit had revealed to her his true identity.
At first Jesus just ignores the woman’s pleas, but she persists. Eventually she starts to annoy the disciples, so they ask Jesus to send her away. But somehow she gets past the disciples, throws herself at the feet of Jesus, and pleads for help for her child.
That brings us, of course, to the part of the story that troubles us. At first, Jesus doesn’t help the woman. He tells her he has been sent only to “the lost sheep of Israel.” And then he says something even more troubling: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” That’s the part we really hate – the thought that Jesus refuses to help a woman and her sick child – and that he calls them “dogs.”
The New Testament scholars wrestle with this story about as much as we do, and they haven’t managed to agree on an explanation. But it seems to me that this story is what some of the scholars call an “enacted parable.” In other words, sometimes Jesus would do something in such a way that his actions communicated an important lesson, just as his spoken parables used stories to do that.
When you look at what happens here, Jesus starts out by saying that he had been sent to the lost sheep of Israel. And of course, we know that’s true; he did appear among the Hebrew people. But in this story, Jesus has led his disciples outside the borders of the promised land. He has already led them out into the gentile world. And when the Canaanite woman continues in her humble faith to ask for healing, Jesus grants her plea and provides that healing for her daughter. So it seems to me that we’re meant to see Jesus’ action as a sign of what God was doing: having sent the Word first to Israel, God was now extending it into a gentile world that was crying out for its healing power.
Or, alternatively, we might understand Jesus to be saying that in God’s eyes, this woman and her sick child were among “the lost sheep of Israel.”
The New Testament scholars say the part about the dogs had a different meaning to ancient readers than it does to us. The Greek term used here has more of a sense of ‘pets’ — maybe even ‘puppies’ – than it does of dirty, wild dogs. It gives the woman a chance to say, in a sense, “OK, Jesus, we’re willing to take even ‘leftover’ blessings” – as though even the tiniest bit of Jesus’ power would be enough to heal her child. Which Jesus then seems happy to provide. He compliments the woman on her great faith, and heals her daughter.
God has often acted in ways that are very surprising. God has always chosen surprising people to do his work for him, and has often directed them to work in ways that struck others as slightly shocking. We tend to miss that because we’re so familiar with lots of the stories. But throughout history, the ‘shock value’ in God’s actions has tended to grab people’s attention. Just think about how different Jesus was from his people’s expectations of the Messiah. Shockingly different, in fact.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for your willingness to spread your blessing into the whole world, including to our gentile ancestors and to us. Renew our willingness to wrestle with the stories of scripture so that you can surprise and challenge and transform us by your word and the teachings of Jesus. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 123 and 146; Nehemiah 9:26-38; and Revelation 18:9-20.)