“Jesus answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered, “Woman, great is your faith!” –Matthew 15:26-28, NRSV
The story of Jesus and the “Canaanite woman” resonated deeply as I prepared for a Peace Retreat that would address themes of diversity in the church, inclusion, and interfaith dialogue. It reminded me of Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness following his baptism, a time of struggle and choice that clarified–in the flesh–what names like “Son” and “Beloved” would really mean. The Holy Spirit that led (even drove) Jesus into that wilderness seems to be moving again in Matthew 15, leading, prodding, even pushing.
Jesus and his disciples travel to the district of Tyre and Sidon, in what is now Lebanon. They are outside of familiar territory and familiar people. It is off their beaten track, physically and spiritually. No sooner have they arrived than a pleading woman approaches them, calling upon Jesus’ mercy to deliver her suffering daughter. The text is brusque in its description: she is from “that region” and her “coming out” is an intrusion. She bears a label heavily laden with historical enmity and displacement: she is “Canaanite,” the Other.
The ensuing passages come like a punch in the solar plexus. Because when the woman cries out in anguish, Jesus ignores her. “He did not answer her at all.” He is deaf to her voice, her prayer. She persists, and only then does he speak, in order to reinforce their separation: “I was only sent for the lost sheep of our household.” You and your daughter clearly have no claim; the matter was settled long ago. When the mother is still not discouraged, insisting, “Lord, help me!,” Jesus compares her to a dog and suggests that she is not worthy of divine attention. The disciples of Jesus are no help in the matter, eagerly joining this distorted savior, uniting against a scapegoated foe with passion considerably greater than their most com-passionate offerings. The scene is so appallingly painful at this point that one is moved to cry out: “What in God’s name is going on here?” It’s a question worth exploring.
Is numbness to the real experience of others all that shocking to us? The heavy weight of historical attitudes, harsh boundaries that isolate people, diminishing labels that dehumanize, efforts to administrate grace, the Bible wielded as a weapon–are these so uncommon as to astound us? Of course not. In this case, we are startled by who is saying and doing these things. This is a hopeful development. If the story has led each of us to a wilderness encounter, to the margins, then the Spirit is indeed moving!
Let us all take heart, because the good news that our own spirits so long for will be offered abundantly. It is embodied in this woman! In the awesome beauty of the broken bread of her life. By love incarnate. In what a mentor of mine once called her “dogged persistence.” And in what Jesus himself describes as her “faith.” Faith, such great faith, in a “Canaanite woman” from “that region” whose “coming out” awakens the Galilean caravan to an ever-widening realm! Indeed, her faith transforms the scene.
She is a gift to Jesus. Even as she pleads on behalf of another, her fragile daughter, she is also Jesus’ intercessor, in a wonderful way. She calls forth mercy from him. And he is the one whose life has been a fountain of mercy to this point, who has taught those following him to learn what it means to desire mercy and not sacrifice.
Just when the book appears to be slamming shut on their common future, our new friend from the margins trumps Jesus’ rigid religiosity: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” And the narrative turns! Jesus hears her. His way of being takes renewed shape and substance. It is as though, once he is able to receive this strong, vulnerable, precious gift, he is then able to recognize himself in the fullness of the divine image. He is not merely the “Son of David” but far more the ‘Son of Man,’ the Human One. The truth is revealed, emerging, coming out, in this scene. Unfamiliar territory, the un-comfort zone, becomes a place of great blessing and revelation.
Has God given us “others” who are God’s gifts to us, our intercessors? Will unfamiliar territory, and unfamiliar people, yield great blessing for the church? As the young people on my retreat cracked open and risked entering dynamic gospel stories, they encountered many on the “outside” whom Jesus welcomes into the realm of God. We discovered the Beloved Community growing and being nourished by enemies, people who had been paralyzed, little people, bleeding people, untouchable people, dying people, poor people, rich people, homeless people, labeled people, sick people, excluded people. We began to recognize ourselves in the stories.
The woman’s daughter is healed, released from the demon that tormented her: quite likely a demon of isolation and marginalization. Her life changes. But so does the life of a larger community, and so does the life of Jesus!
I imagine that some of these reflections sound outrageous, particularly in light of our confession of Jesus as the one without sin. But our notions of “perfection” don’t necessarily coincide with the New Testament term “teleios,” which is better understood as wholeness or completion. It is also helpful to note that this story immediately follows a dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees about what is “clean’ and “unclean.” Perhaps the trip to Tyre is an opportunity for the disciples to learn that the abolishment of those distinctions is about far more than what goes in your mouth.
I like to think of this another way: Jesus shows us what it means to accept God’s intercessory gifts to us in the form of many “others;” to open to them; to allow such encounters to reveal us and transform us; and to give thanks for these fresh winds of the Spirit. We can imitate him in this way.