There are times when I am extremely glad that I am not the one who was charged with the responsibility of writing one of the Gospels. And this is certainly one of those times. I am afraid that if I was writing the Gospel of Wayne that I would have very conveniently omitted this story. It doesn’t seem to be a very nice story, and I would have just left it out, and my readers would never have known about this amazing encounter with this Canaanite woman.
And a very difficult passage it is! It’s hard not to conclude that Jesus isn’t being very nice to this woman. And maybe he’s not. It’s quite out of character for the Jesus that we like to imagine. And there’s all kinds of excuses for him that try to soften or explain away how he behaves. Maybe Jesus was having a really bad day when he encountered this woman. Maybe he was tired and frustrated, and he just dumped all of that tiredness and frustration all over this woman. But…are we willing to allow Jesus to be tired and frustrated? Do we want him to be as human as we are?
Matthew tells us that Jesus has gone into the District of Tyre and Sidon. That’s Gentile territory. Maybe he did need a rest. Lot’s of times in all of the Gospels, Jesus sneaks away so that he can pray and get some peace and relaxation. That’s normal. We need to do that. When we’re tired and frustrated, we don’t operate at peak performance either. And maybe we lose some of our niceness.
So maybe Jesus was having a really bad day. And maybe he was tired and frustrated, and maybe what he really wanted for this day was to be alone.
But in spite of all of that, there’s something really, really important going on in this passage. And it’s so important that Matthew has every intention of specifically drawing our attention to it. Sadly, that intent is obscured in our English translations. Matthew uses a word to introduce this passage that is properly translated, “Behold! Look at this, pay attention, listen up!” And so we’d better do that.
For Matthew, what happens here is nothing less than extraordinary. This woman is a Canaanite woman. To the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel, she was dirty. She was as dirty as she could get. The Canaanites were ancient enemies of the people of Israel, and hatred for them still ran deep. There was strong prejudice against them. The people living in the first century had not yet learned to love their enemies. Think this morning, please, of the people that we believe are dirty. Those people are this woman.
And so it’s all bad from the beginning. Jesus arrives, and all of a sudden, Jesus and his disciples are accosted by a shouting woman. This is pretty extreme behavior. It’s out of place. It’s unseemly. And she won’t quit. She keeps at it. And she’s upsetting the disciples, and worse, it seems, Jesus is ignoring her. It’s as if he doesn’t even hear her.
And so the disciples, who always seem to know what’s best, decide that she needs to be gone. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” I’m surprised that the disciples didn’t take the initiative to do this themselves. Usually they were pretty good at protecting Jesus from people who needed him. And the disciples were well aware that this woman was dirty. They knew that she had no claim on Jesus.
But I don’t know why Jesus was paying her no heed. I don’t have an answer for that. He certainly knew her need. Everyone within hearing distance knew her need. She’s been broadcasting it at the top of her lungs. She has a child who is being horribly tormented by a demon. She’s upset. She’s afraid. She is exhibiting deep concern that can only be appreciated by a mother who has a sick child. She desperately wants Jesus’ attention. She knows that Jesus can help her.
But she also knows that Jesus just might go on ignoring her as if she did not exist. She is not unaware that her race and her cultural heritage makes her the kind of person who ought not be asking for anything from Jesus. She knows that even though thousands of years have come and gone since her people and God’s people considered themselves mortal enemies, that dislike for her race still runs deep among the Jews. She is a Gentile, after all, and one of the most despised of all Gentiles. But that is something that she has no control over. She is who she is. But right now what controls her is the life of her child.
And so she cries out, shouts out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But still, Jesus pays her no heed. But she will not give up. She will not let even the tiniest glimmer of hope flicker out. And so bravely, she approaches Jesus, and she kneels before him, and she breathes out the most desperate and most effective prayer that she knows how to pray. “Lord, help me.” There’s tremendous sincerity and deep truth in that prayer. It is the kind of prayer that we must pray when we have run out of words. It is the deepest prayer of the heart, and it communicates everything that needs to be said.
And still, Jesus does not immediately grant her request. Boy, do we want him to do that! Don’t we want him to smile, and to reach out, and take her by the hands, and lift her up from her kneeling position and look her straight in the eyes with all of that wonderful compassion that he is so well known for, and say to her, “Daughter, your child is healed!”
But he doesn’t do that! Why not, Jesus? What are you doing? What are you thinking? Instead, he says to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “Dog” is Jewish slang for “Gentile”. It’s uncomplimentary to say the least. And “Children”; that’s a slam, too. “Children” refers to the children of God, the chosen people, the Jews. But the term is all the more biting when we realize that it is this woman’s daughter, her child, her sick child, that has brought about this whole encounter in the first place. Jesus is pretty much saying, Lady, I’ve got stuff to give, but it’s not going to you or to your daughter. And that’s very consistent with what Jesus said to his disciples earlier when they asked him to get rid of this woman. Jesus told his disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That’s a pretty strong declaration of Jesus’ self-understanding of his mission. Jesus is a Jew, sent to minister to the Jews, particularly to those who are lost.
What’s even more troubling here is that while the woman has called Jesus a very complimentary name, Jesus has responded with what really amounts to a racial slur. The woman has called Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David.” Both of those terms are very Jewish terms, and they are Jewish language for Messiah, or Savior. What’s even more amazing here is that this woman, this Gentile woman, this Canaanite woman, seems to know and understand more about Jesus’ true identity than most of the lost children of Israel. Surely Jesus could have been moved by this alone.
But what a strong woman she is! She will not give up, she will not go away. She is going to hold her own with Jesus. And so she says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Yes, Lord, agree that I am outside of and apart from the perceived blessings of God. All I’m asking for is some of the overflow of those blessings. Surely there is plenty to go around. Sometimes the crumbs do fall, and the dogs get a treat. Just a crumb, Lord, that’s all I need. Just a crumb.
Jesus is obviously moved by her reply. He has witnessed her faith. She has proclaimed her faith, and it is a genuine faith that springs from her heart. And so he says to her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Matthew tells us that her daughter was healed instantly.
There is much about this passage that troubles me deeply. The experts have some explanations for Jesus’ unseemly behavior, but in my mind they’re all defective. They’re all attempts at explaining things away, so much grasping at straws, I just don’t know. I do believe though, that the rest of this chapter is commentary on this episode for those willing to ponder it. Aside from that though, I’ve got to go back to how Matthew introduced this passage. He wanted us to pay particular attention to it. What happened here was very important to Matthew. And so I see two things that emerge. The first is that Jesus eventually crossed profound social and racial barriers to heal this woman’s daughter. Matthew’s original readers needed to do that too, as more and more gentiles found faith in Jesus Christ. This episode taught them just how difficult it would be for them to do this, and how necessary it was to do it. The Christian Church today needs more than ever to cross racial and social barriers to do ministry. We need to dispense with prejudices of all kinds. God loves the whole world and so must we. We must root out of our hearts all things that define others as being dirty, however difficult that may be for us.
The second thing that emerges from this passage for me is faith. This woman had faith. She had pluck and grit, too. She knew what Jesus could do for her, and she was willing to express her belief in his power to act. Jesus was her only hope. She made that plain when she said, “Lord, help me.” What is it within us that keeps us from having Jesus as our only hope? How great is our faith?