One of the more fascinating stories in the Gospels that many Christians conveniently ignore is Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 19:21-28 (par. Mark 7:24-30). Here is how it reads in the NRSV:
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He 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 the master’s table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Generally, in story after story in the Gospels, Jesus confronts the status quo, speaks truth to power, challenges the religious gatekeepers, and in the words of Flannery O’Connor’s philosophizing serial killer (the Misfit) “throws everything off balance.” But in this particular story, Jesus is the one who seems to be thrown off balance.
The wit, wisdom, courage, and persistence of this Canaanite woman, a non-Jew whom Matthew identifies with Israel’s ancient enemy, appear to get the best of Jesus. That is, she seems to awaken something in Jesus that had been neglected or he hadn’t seen because of the energy focused on his mission to Israel.
So what’s going on? I think we are given a glimpse into an encounter that helped to enlarge Jesus’ vision and to unleash in him a greater compassion. Certainly by the time we get to the end of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ mission extends to all nations (Matt. 28:18-20). But in Matthew 10 when he sends out the twelve on an itinerate mission he tells them,
“Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Beginning with the story of the magi in Matthew 2:1-12 there are hints of a larger mission beyond Israel. We see this also in the healing of the Centurion’s servant in 8:5-13 and the Gadarene demoniacs in 8:28-32, but clearly Jesus is focused on Israel. Why is that? Matthew doesn’t tell us, but I have a theory. Perhaps Matthew’s Jesus expected Israel, God’s covenant people, to be the people to introduce God’s benevolent and gracious reign to the Gentiles. (All who are chosen by God are chosen to communicate that chosenness to everyone else.)
Apparently, Jesus was so focused on his task of preparing the covenant people for their mission to the larger world he considered the woman’s request an interruption, an intrusion. He seems to have lost sight, at least temporarily, of the people who constituted the larger world then and there. This woman draws Jesus back into the present moment. Sometimes our future plans and preparations can prevent us from seeing what God is doing here and now. God is always in the now.
There are some interpreters who attempt to soften the harshness of Jesus’ initial response by arguing that Jesus was testing her faith. Maybe he was, but that still does not justify his insensitive remarks: “It is not fair to take the children’s food (Israel’s food) and throw it to the dogs (a common racial slur for Gentiles).” The woman doesn’t question the priority Jesus gives to his mission to Israel (she even addresses Jesus using a Jewish Messianic title, “Lord, Son of David,”—post Easter?), what she questions is Jesus’ neglect of those outside Israel at the present time and invites Jesus to see this interruption as an opportunity for greater empathy and compassion.
Jesus, after this encounter, was still focused on his work within Judaism as a teacher/sage, reformer, prophet, and Messianic mediator of God’s kingdom, but I cannot help but think this experience opened him to a wider understanding, outlook, and awareness of God’s presence in the other. (It’s interesting that Jesus announces in response to the woman’s wit and persistence, “Woman, great is your faith,” in contrast to the common way he describes the faith of his own disciples on several occasions, “You, of little faith.”)
If the trajectory of Jesus’ life is our guide for discerning God’s will, then we need to be open to what encounters with other faith traditions and spiritual seekers can teach us. If we are receptive to the Spirit through such encounters they will no doubt compel us to be more inclusive—more considerate, welcoming, and compassionate toward others who hold to different traditions and engage in different practices.
If Jesus was willing to confront the limitations of his own faith tradition and be moved by a larger vision, then we, too, need to be open to ever new encounters with persons of other faith traditions (or no tradition) who may challenge us to expand our vision, participate in a larger story, see God in the other, grow in grace, and be motivated by a greater love.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to theUnfundamentalist Christians blog on this website.