… 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 Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
Jesus’ 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 Jesus 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 the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour. (Matthew 15)
My daughter’s on again/ off again illness made sleep fitful– if not because of illness then because of anticipation of illness.
Plainly, I do not know how I lived the life I lived. I tended to my daughter because if I didn’t, who would? My daughter was the real hero. Me? I just gathered the stones she used to hurl at her Goliath. I supplied her with the weapons she needed to do battle everyday.
I would have liked to have taken her pain in my hands and helped her make sense of it. Without that option, I placed stones into her hands and strengthened her while she took aim.
The ladies in my village woke up thinking of me. I woke up thinking of my daughter. My daughter woke up thinking of her Goliath.
The day the fevers worsened, my cousin came running up our sandy path. I was in the middle of rinsing yet another set of linens. I heard my cousin before I saw him, his hastened footsteps pounding the dirt, stirring up the dust. I knew right away by the purpose in his pace, this was a serious visit, different than his weekly visits for afternoon tea and dropping off his extra dates, almost the only thing we could reliably get my daughter to eat.
My cousin had theatrical tendencies. While I usually found him entertaining, this day I was at the end of my rope. So I decided to let his heart rate return to normal before I told him that I didn’t get one hour of sleep last night, today felt particularly hopeless, and I didn’t have extra reserves for drollery.
Finally, he stood up and collected himself. I drew a deep breath and started my rehearsed cautioning, but it was too late. He was already two sentences in, expending as much energy as he did to get up our hill to tell me about a trip he had just taken to Palestine.
I interrupted him to say I didn’t have time to listen to his latest travel adventures. Maybe some other day, I said. Because I can’t right now. I could feel the tears forming hot behind my eyes. I have more healers to visit, more spices to collect, more oils to administer, more stones to bang my head against, more tears to shed, more daughters to ruin, I CAN’T DO THIS RIGHT NOW, I yelled and fell into a heap right there in the dirt underneath my baby’s linens and let my grief go as loud as I had been wanting to. I laid there unconcerned with who might be watching or what they might be thinking.
My cousin gave me about 30 seconds of space and then his voice was soft in my ear, Cousin, he said, I know. It is why I am here. Sister, please. Please listen.
I sat up angry. I knew the man he spoke of. I cursed at myself for hoping that my cousin had something to tell me.
You have to leave now, I said. I got to my feet, pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes, and brushed the dirt from my robe.
No, please! I’m not finished, he begged.
No longer trying to be polite, I yelled at him, They hate us! I know this Jesus you speak of. He is not here for us! How can you be so foolish?! ‘Utterly annihilate them,’ it reads. We are not just Gentiles, Cousin, but Canaanites! We are Canaanites! Please leave. Now.
My daughter, hearing the commotion, had stumbled our direction. I didn’t know what she had heard but I didn’t want her to hear anymore. Go, I said again to my cousin, my voice a growl.
My cousin took me by the shoulders. Sister, he said. I went to hear him because I was curious. But there were people who went there to be healed. And they were. He touched them and unclean spirits came out. People gathered around him just to be near him. Power was coming out. Sister, we could feel it. He healed them all, anyone who asked. I saw it with my own eyes. I saw it, Sister.
My daughter leaned her burning body against my leg and I put my face in my hands and wept.
Sister please, look at me.
I lifted my eyes.
I come week after week and watch you suffer. I suffer because I can’t help you. And week after week you watch her suffer. You suffer because you can’t help her. Please, Sister. I know someone who can help her. Do you think I am here to be cruel? Do you think I would say these things in front of her if I didn’t know them to be true? I love you. I love her. You must go to Him. He crouched down to my daughter’s eye level and traced her brow brushing the hair out of her face.
Annoyed with the hope I felt in my heart, I pointed out the obvious, I am a pagan, I am a descendant of enemies, I have no claim on the covenant.
Rising, meeting my gaze and my conviction, he steadily asked me, Do you believe me, or not?
I do. Believe you. I could barely eek out the words.
Then go. I know where he is. You won’t have to travel far. But. He is in hiding, he said rushing out the last part, hoping to slither it past me.
I placed my hands on my hips in exasperation. He dismissed my disapproval and waved his hand, He is here for rest, to teach his disciples, it’s fine. I know the house. Go to him. Ask him for healing.
I measured him cooly.
Sister, he said, what other options do you have?
My daughter slipped her hot hand in mine. I realized I had none.
I set out the next morning.
The house wasn’t even hard to find. You could hear them from a quarter mile away. I don’t know how they expected to do any significant kind of hiding with a ruckus like that. I heard a voice from inside yell Jesus’ name with a boisterous laugh, so I sprinted the last stretch fully realizing how it must look to see a middle aged lady like me going at her top speed. Without bashfulness, I hiked my robe up around my thighs and ran faster. During my travels my resolve had strengthened. Optimism as sure as a promise had snuck into my heart. I didn’t feel I had one second to waste.
I understood Jesus had no obligation to me. Responding to me was not his immediate mission, nor was it his larger one; I was not a disciple, I was not a Jew. But I believed. And I was there to gather one last stone for my baby. So I caught my breath, called his name, and begged like any mother would.
Lord, I shrieked, Son of David! I paced the perimeter of the house speaking of my daughter, screaming her name, screaming the name of the Lord until finally a burly man with curly black hair surprised me, blocking my path.
Standing like an armed guard, his hands on his hips, his barrel chest out, he said emotionlessly, Listen, I’m sorry about your daughter. But we are trying to get rest and it keeps getting interrupted. First in the desert. Then in Gennesaret. Now this. This isn’t what we are here for. You aren’t who he is here for. You understand, right?
I do, I said with measure straightening the skirt of my robe. I looked at my feet while he walked back inside. I dared not fault him for his annoyance with me. Before my daughter’s illness, I couldn’t meet other people’s pain either.
Despite his scolding, I vowed to yell until sunset. He seemed irritated, not dangerous, and with my daughter being cared for by a neighbor, I had all day to hope outside that house.
I could hear the disciples inside pressing Jesus. This is exactly what we were trying to avoid. Send her on her way. But the same resolve that made me raise my skirt and run faster was the same resolve that made me get comfortable with my back against the house and keep yelling.
Then I heard Jesus speak. I knew it was him by the way they quieted down. With something in his voice I cannot name– guidance, challenge, merriment– he said with deliberate words, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.
And then he waited.
I sprung to my feet thinking that standing would heighten my hearing. I swear I could feel the raise of his eyebrows. The lost sheep of Israel? That wasn’t me, but something promising was happening I couldn’t fully absorb. I was straining to hear, my ear as close to the house as physically possible when the black haired man appeared again and startled me so that I took three steps back, tripped over my robe, and fell.
He walked toward me shaking his head, helped me up without eye contact, and began to lead me inside. Once I realized what he was doing– he was letting me in!– I tried to remember what Jesus had said. What were the words that caused this gruff man to extend mercy? I spent a second trying to care and then bolted past him, beating him to the door. Knowing this was my chance, I ran inside, scanned the room, easily picked out Jesus, crawled to his feet on my hands and knees, wrapped myself around his ankles, and begged, Lord, help me!
When I said, Lord help me, the black haired man, filling the door frame, stopped in his tracks and locked eyes with his Lord. They exchanged something only they seemed to know.
The rest of the disciples watched us from under their eyebrows, their arms folded across their chests. Jesus smiled at them rascally, the corners of his mouth turned up, his eyes knowing and gleeful. Was he keeping a secret? Was he hiding a gift? Was there an inside joke I was not privy to? Ordinarily, I would have searched the room for clues owl-eyed, but in this moment I was only alert to Jesus. He turned his full attention towards me, took my hand, and led me to my feet.
Sitting me down beside him, he turned his knees toward mine. He gripped my hand tighter and changed his smile from them to me, softening his eyes so the corners fell into their familiar lines. He had done this many times before, the lines only proved it. He leaned in close and said tenderly, It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs. When he said “children”, he gestured to the other men in the room. When he said “dog,” he nodded towards me.
I was asking for my daughter to be healed. Jesus had spent a fair amount of time ignoring my requests. And now he had likened me to a dog. I realize the scandal.
Except I didn’t feel scandalized.
Maybe it helped that I didn’t go there to be flattered. I went there to be saved from my hell on earth. Between my cousin’s account, this gentle man’s demeanor, and my desperation, I only felt … expectant.
As I looked at Jesus, and imagined this scene, taking bread from children, tossing it to the tumbling, bumbling puppies underfoot, I felt endeared. He was describing a scene from my childhood as a Greek, certainly not a scene from his childhood as a Jew. Speaking my language, the nostalgia he conjured, me, a beloved little dog? Pulling his robe? Refusing to be ignored? Begging for scraps? It all sounded about right.
I leaned in also. With an earnest smile and the slightest cheek, I challenged him, But Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.
I don’t know if it was accepting his metaphor, going back and forth with him, or believing his left overs were plenty enough for me, but with deep affection, he scooped me up and commended my faith. Placing my head on his chest, he smiled over his shoulder, the direction of his disciples.
Then with his hands on my shoulders, he extended his arms to look me in the eye. Without words, I told him I knew who I was — a beggar in desperate need. In His eyes, he told me who He was– a compassionate Savior with every answer to any pain.
I knew my daughter had been healed. In my very own body, I felt her fever leave. After years of grit through endurance, I had called my suffering what it was, had a good old fashioned temper tantrum, walked a road of repentance, sought out a Savior, called him Lord, and threw myself at his feet.
This, our very last stone.
At sunset the last orange rays that look like blood spill over the horizon. My daughter and I take the linens off the line. My cousin sits nearby watching us while eating a pouch of dates. I recount more details of my interaction with Jesus because even though I’ve been back for three weeks, none of us can get enough. My cousin in his theatrical way nods enthusiastically with a mouthful of dates that he tried to tell me Jesus was more concerned with matters of the heart than he was with ethnic boundaries. Weh-comb-ing oussiders, he mumbles as he chews, isss whot hees aw abawt.
Just then we notice a burly figure kicking up sand approaching our home. I know immediately who it is. He approaches meekly, cautiously, and introduces himself extending his hand to my cousin then lowering his head in my daughter’s direction. Keeping my back to him, I fold the last linen and say casually, Hey there, I’d offer you some water, but I’m trying to get ahead with these linens. I keep getting interrupted. You understand, right? I look over my shoulder and smile slyly hoping he accepts my drollery. He ducks his head and nods with a sheepish smile. My cousin offers him a seat and a handful of dates. Peter accepts both.
That’s actually why I’m here, he says. I’d like to explain.
It’s OK, I tell him. I have everything I need and more. With the last linen folded, my daughter catches my eye to ask with a jerk of her head the direction of her friend’s house, if she can be excused. I nod and she bounces next door. The three of us watch her trail away.
Peter’s voice calls us back, Yes, but there are a few things I’d like for you to know, he says.
I fill a cup with water, hand it to him, and pull up a chair.
The crowds, the need, the disease, he says, our work with him is… overwhelming. If I’m telling the truth, it is scary. The crowds push in and grab and demand. We walk around feeling overcome much of the time. But he never says no. He heals them all.
I understand, I interrupt. You don’t need to…
Wait. Please, I want to finish, he says. The day you came, we committed to rest. Finally. Yet there you were. Yelling no less. We were exasperated that even in another country we couldn’t get away from people who needed him. EVERYONE needed him!
We had asked Jesus to send people away before, that wasn’t unique– compassion isn’t always our strong suit–but when you showed up, Jesus was silent. He got quiet in his rabbi way which means we are supposed to ask the right questions. We are obedient, but every time we try not to roll our eyes. Some of us are better than others. He taught us through you that day and you let him. You were patient as he connected the dots for us. We were amazed by you. We are always fighting amongst ourselves, he says shaking his head, trying to decide who is better. We’re obnoxious, really. But you. You accepted a lesser status just to be included in the circle. You accepted a position as a dog under the table!
It is better than a lost sheep, no? I ask with a smile.
Together, we laugh.
I know you remember the exchange as well as I do, he continues, but I don’t know if you know that in one meaningful moment, we watched Jesus heal your daughter, minister to us, minister to you, deliver a promise, avoid the spotlight, and save the whole world.
I hang on his every word, speechless myself.
So, I want you to know— your words, your faith, your humility, your desperate plea— you changed me.
Brother, I’m honored. You didn’t have to make this trip to build my faith and yet. How might I pray for you, Peter?
If ever again I find myself lost at sea, Sister, will you pray for your words, ‘Lord, help me,’ to spring from my mouth, but also for your faith to spring from my heart. I am certain, this time, it is what will keep me from drowning.