This gospel passage can provoke unease and speculation. The preacher’s website visit quite often had more posts on this passage than any other I remember. I’m guessing that is because on first glance this exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman reveals a side of Jesus that is not very familiar to us who experience Christ Jesus as a compassionate Lord. The aloofness he exhibits in the passage and his rather rude treatment to this woman comes begging for healing for her daughter seems uncharacteristic of him.
So I want to offer you my best estimation of what is going on in this passage. To do that we need to start by looking at the larger context of the passage. In the verses of this chapter that immediately precede this passage, we find that Jesus has made significant breaks with Jewish religious traditions of his day, especially with regard to purity codes and this has angered and offended the Pharisees. Jesus has done what he felt called to do, and it has caused conflict. This seems to drain him of some energy. He feels the need to get away, to regroup and think things through. So as the first verse of our gospel tells us, Jesus crossed the border between Israel into the regions Gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon. Here in the Gentile territory one might assume that he would enjoy some anonymity, and so could take the needed time out to regenerate his energy and refresh his spirit.
But instead of finding rest in anonymity, he is almost immediately confronted with a request for healing from the Canaanite woman of that land, whose child is gravely ill. The Canaanites were the people that live to closely with the Jews of that day but who were held in great contempt by many in Israel. At first Jesus ignores this woman. But there is something in her approach to him that catches his attention. She refers to him as “Lord” and “Son of David”. These are messianic titles she is using, indicating that she has recognized the divinity clothed within his humanity.
Perhaps this was like salt in a wound to Jesus. The leaders of Israel have just roundly rejected him. His words to the disciples who asked that he send this persistent woman away reveal I think the struggle that is going on within him as he remembers the lack of faith among some of the leaders of his own people, and yet here sees one full of faith among those who are outside the covenant God holds with Israel. He answers his disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That was the boundary he had assumed up until this moment. His mission was inside Israel. But what is that really true? He had not found an opening in the established hierarchy of his beloved Israel. Yet here was a Canaanite woman, who was hailing him as Messiah – the ground was shifting under his feet and it was agonizing.
And then this persistent woman got past the disciples and came and knelt before him. Looking him full in the face, she makes her request again- “Lord, help me”. His response to her is harsh-harsher than we thought possible, but harshness I would bet was born of his agony. I imagine him in that moment turning his eyes from hers and then retorting with some venom that perhaps is not really meant for her- “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She is not put off. She is confident about who she is and what she’s asking. She responds with the quickness that startles him- “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that have fallen from their masters’ tables.”
A commentator writing for the synthesis Bible commentary series says the following about this interaction:
“With one hand of her faith the Canaanite woman had lead hold of him and whom all healing Grace was stored; with her other hand she laid hold of her suffering daughter-she, new herself to be a living conductor by which the power of Christ might run, like an electric current from him to the object of her love.” (Synthesis CE, August 18, 1996).
I am guessing that it was this woman’s fully alive and energized faith that drew Jesus attention fully back to her. Her words pull him out of his agony and make his heart leap with hope. “Woman great is your faith! If we take a moment to look at this exchange of words between Jesus and this woman of Canna, we notice this is the only statement made by Jesus that is followed by an exclamation point. This indicates to me that he is speaking with a certainty and a conviction that did not accompany his earlier statements to her.
It appears to me that this Canaanite woman was a messenger to Jesus, and both Jesus and this woman taught each other something on that day. In a sense they were both rabbis in God’s incredible plan of salvation. He personifies to her God’s amazing, merciful, healing power, while she stretches him past a boundary that he had set on God’s boundless love and grace. Through her, God is showing a way forward to Jesus where Jesus was not expecting it. His vision of his mission is enlarged in this moment, and the instrument God chose to accomplish this is perhaps not what he expected – a foreign woman whose eyes of faith were wide open. And the disciples – we are they- are fed with a radical new truth-that God is no respecter of human boundaries and divisions.
If we look at the other two lessons and the psalm for today we will notice that this theme dominates these scriptures. In the first lesson we are told that God’s holy mountain will be home at all those whose hearts are set on God. And in the second lesson we find Paul struggling with the same truth. What we know is that Paul the former pharisaic persecutor of the followers of Jesus, after he’s Damascus Road conversion spent the rest of his life as Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles. But never did Paul let this amazing twist in his personal life story cut him off from his fellow Jews. As we hear in this passage from the Letter to the Romans, Paul was certain that God was working, out behind the scenes, in ways that we cannot even imagine, the salvation of all people, Jews and Gentiles, and that those earth and time bound categories and divisions counted for nothing in the light of Christ.
This week as news stories of human division and hatred have swirled around me from within our own nation and around the world, I have held onto the scripture passages, and been moved to ask myself “Who are the outcasts of my life? With whom do I have the hardest time living on God’s holy mountain?” Perhaps those are the ones to whom I should go and share the bread of healing that has been so graciously shared with me. By so doing I would be following in the footsteps our Lord has laid down in this gospel. And perhaps it is in those places that great and amazing faith might be revealed.
In times like these we all need such experiences to kindle our hearts and awaken hope, that we can make a difference is a world beset with small minded bigotries and hatreds that sometime can bubble up in our own hearts. Stories of people who have pushed past these barriers are sometimes too few and far between in our shared histories and our daily newscasts which seem over populated with stories of people doing just the opposite. We have too much News of hatred and violence and terror. So whenever I run across a story of boundary busting love in action, I like to share it. So I will end with this story that echoes what was going on between the Canaanite woman and Jesus. It comes from the autobiography of Yevtushenko, the great Russian poet. It is about a moment in 1944 the world seemed bleak but self-spending love broke out among enemies:
“It was a day when 20,000 German war prisoners were marched through the streets of Moscow, wearing bloodstained bandages, hobbling on crutches, leaning on comrades. At one point an elderly Russian woman, herself ill-clad, pushed through a police line, went up to the column of ragged German soldiers, and pushed a crust of bread into the pocket of a soldier so exhausted that he was tottering. And then suddenly from all sides women were running to these enemy soldiers pushing bread, cigarettes, whatever they had, into their hands. It was a reminder that human compassion has sources that transcend powerful hatreds. It suggests that the roots of reconciliation are not alien feelings to the human spirit, but a residue of our origin in the timeless being of the Creator, The Eternal One.” (“Peacemaking: the Christians Vocation”, by Calvin DeVry’s)
In Christ’s name and for his sake. Amen+