Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is a confusing one. I mean, Jesus is usually such a nice guy! Was he just having a bad day? Why is he so crabby with the Canaanite woman?!
See what I mean:
• First, she cries out to him, and he outright ignores her.
• Then, when the disciples ask Jesus to send her away, he responds—reminding them that he was sent only to the house of Israel, and not to this foreigner.
• He rejects her yet a third time when she pleads for help, and he insists that it’s not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs.
The story ends well: Jesus, seeing the strong faith of the woman, helps her—healing her daughter, who has been possessed by an evil spirit. The woman returns home, confident that her daughter will be well when she gets there. And the disciples learn an important lesson.
But criminy, why couldn’t he have been friendlier, more loving, more “Christ-like” in the first place?
* * * * *
Oh, where to begin!?
In the parallel passage in the Gospel of Mark (Mk. 7:24-29), a couple of additional facts come to light. For one thing, Jesus and his disciples had gone to this region (near Tyre and Sidon, but not actually within the city) to get away from the crowds—to regroup and perhaps to pray. Mark writes:
He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet.
So she was pushy, imposing herself in their private retreat.
And she was a Canaanite—a woman from a people who were traditionally regarded by the Israelites as hated enemies. The pagan Canaanites did not worship the God of the Israelites, but rather worshipped Baal, the “bull god” who was depicted as half-bull and half-man and who endorsed religious prostitution. Another Canaanite deity worshipped in the region of Tyre was Moloc, noted for the cult of human sacrifices, particularly child sacrifices.
In addition, observant Jews would remember the story of Canaan, son of Ham (and grandson of Noah). In Genesis 9, Noah puts a curse on Canaan, after Ham entered his father’s tent and looked upon Noah, drunken and stretched out naked on his cot.
So some readers think that Jesus stalled, and it was only her deep faith that touched his heart and convinced him to help her.
Others, though, cite Jewish traditions to show that Jesus was only acting as any rabbinic teacher of the age would have done.
• Like rabbinic scholars at the time, Jesus frequently used questions, challenges and puzzles to engage a student in the learning process. “Have you understood all these things?” he asks in Matthew 13:51. In Matthew 16:13 he quizzes the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” In Mark 3:4 he quizzes the crowd, “What is it lawful to do on the Sabbath—to save life or to kill?” And on it goes.
• Silence as a response was another common approach for rabbi’s of the time and was not, as it would be today, a sign of rudeness. Jesus had used silence to heighten the drama, for example, in John 8:11, when the woman was accused of adultery. Or he may have simply wanted to permit her time for reflection. In any case, he wasn’t dismissive of her—since he didn’t just send her away in the first place. And her response was not one of discouragement; she simply waited for him to respond and to answer her prayer.
• Lastly, Jesus was teaching an important lesson to his disciples. They were gathered there for rest, for teaching from the Master himself; but Jesus interrupted this important work to show compassion for this woman. The woman is led to a greater faith and hope; and the disciples better understand their role and their privilege as Jesus’ closest followers.
Here’s what I think: Jesus wants us to have faith. Not the ardent disbelief of the Pharisees, but the humble, confident faith of the Canaanite woman.
And sometimes, he wants us to wait patiently for our prayer to be answered. We may not understand why—Does he want us to grow in faith? Are there circumstances that we don’t comprehend, but which are clear in the mind of God, which would make an affirmative answer not in our best interest? Or must we learn to wait patiently?
Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.