Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Matthew 15:21-28
Many like today’s gospel because the Canaanite woman wins the argument with Jesus. She does indeed force his hand by defending her right to receive God’s grace. She is asking for his help, not for herself, but for her daughter. Jesus’ initial words to her look even less like what we would expect of Christ by the fact that he did not so much as acknowledge her when she first approached him saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
The disciples pick up on his lack of concern for her and urge Jesus to send her away – but she keeps shouting. I admire her, she believes Jesus has the ability to cure her daughter and she pushes and pushes until he finally responds to her. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Which is to say, you are not one of us, you are not my concern. This exchange does not fit with my understanding of Jesus – the man who reached out to those that others rejected. He reached out with compassion to the sick and needy. He healed the lepers, he raised a soldier’s child from the death – a soldier, a man who was among those who oppressed his tribe, the people “of the house of Israel.”
Could this passage be an example of the humanity of Christ? To be human is to sometimes act contrary to our beliefs. To dismiss anyone, to consider anyone less than us is contrary to Christ’s own teaching. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that everyone is our neighbor. So, if we wish to defend Jesus’ actions here, we need to view this exchange as Jesus testing the Canaanite woman’s faith. We see this elsewhere in healing stories. Jesus asks questions and then says, “your faith has made you well.”
In response to Jesus saying that his mission is not to save the Canaanites, but to save the Israelites, the woman comes and kneels before him and says, “Lord, help me.” Once more Jesus tries to send her away without helping her by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Again, this response seems harsh. Not only does Jesus suggest the people of the house of David are God’s children and she is not – he calls her a dog. Is he testing her faith, or is he trying to brush her off?
Regardless, what she says in response is what wins the argument. She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” I have a friend that waited tables when she was younger. She was taught a very useful tool in working with people that she continues to use today as a health care administrator. She said that where she worked, she was not allowed to tell a customer no. She was taught to find a way to say yes.
I never mastered this technique, but I do know that it often better to shift the attention of a small child away from danger rather than tell the child “no” or “stop.” Giving the child something else to do may prevent an argument and accomplish what is needed. The Canaanite woman doesn’t tell Jesus, “no you are wrong,” or “how dare you compare me to a dog,” she agrees with Jesus. It is not fair to take food away from the children and give it to someone else – but then she adds, yet, even the dogs are permitted to eat the crumbs that fall from the table. Jesus then says, “Woman, great is your faith!” And the woman’s child is healed.
Personally, I don’t feel a need to justify what Jesus does here. I think today’s story portrays the humanity of Jesus. Jesus has traveled outside of Jewish territory to escape the crowds of people coming to him for healing. There, he is also free from the threats against him by scribes and the Pharisees. He is in the land of the Gentiles, the one place he thinks he can pray in quiet.
The woman who comes to him is not only asking for his help, she is from the enemy of his tribe. The Canaanites and Israelites were age old enemies. What we don’t know in reading this, thought, is the tone of voice or facial expressions he used when speaking to her. Was he trying to ignore her and then irritated by her request? Or was he distracted at first and then struggling with how he should respond. From the start, Jesus came to save the people of Israel so that they might become “a light to enlightened all the nations of the earth.” We all suffer at times from tunnel vision and we need help to see the bigger picture.
In today’s story, the woman helps Jesus and compassion wins. In my book, that is what really matters here – not arguments concerning the nature of Jesus. A man from the house of David, an enemy of her people, responds to this mother’s love and determination to help her daughter with compassion and her daughter is healed.
Jesus moves past what he came to do and the differences between the Canaanites and Israelites, and Jesus heals the woman’s daughter. He may have struggled to get there, but he was human . . . and he was so much more. We, too, are human, and with God’s help we, too, can be so much more loving and compassionate. We can put aside our differences and see the image of God in the very people we have been taught are not one of us. The violence is Charlottesville last weekend is an example of what happens when people see only differences and fail to see the image of God in others. The shooting of police officers this weekend are also examples of what happens when people seek to divide people into groups of us and them. Healing happens when we cease to see others as our enemies and see them as our brothers and sisters.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, we ask today for your help to heal the divides that are so prevalence today in our nation and in the world. Open the hearts of those who seek to divide us, protect those who seek to restore the peace, and comfort those who mourn. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.