The Gospels are written with only the sparest of details. When we use our imaginations to assign tone, gesture, and intention to the actions of Our Lord, we risk learning more about ourselves than about Him. In that perilous tradition, here I go. My words in plain text, this past Sunday’s Gospel reading in bold.
Even living in a small town, there reaches a point when you cease to care what people think. It wasn’t the embarrassing public episodes that had driven her to this point. It wasn’t even the waking up every morning wondering, “What is going to happen today?”
It was the going to bed at night. Going to bed with the knowledge that you might well wake in the night — or fail to wake in the night — because this precious child, who loved you so tenderly when she was in her wits, might be glowering over you in the darkness, knife in her hand, no longer seeing, no longer thinking, seized again by that unseen force.
It would pass. It always did. And then it would come again.
Looking the fool for standing out on the road waiting for some legendary Jewish rabbi who might — or might not — pass her way? That was nothing. Not anymore.
And anyway, she had reliable news. The rabbi was indeed coming this way. A man from the next village had seen them, and he was now recounting all the controversies to the usual crowd that fed on controversy.
She walked on, to find her spot. Some place away from the bustle. She really didn’t care whether this rabbi had just made some other rabbi mad by opinionating on hand-washing . . . really? Handwashing? This man had fed 5,000 people, and what made the gossip up and down the roads was the question of handwashing? She shook that thought off, and climbed up on a rock to see if she could get a view of the rabbi’s entourage coming up the rise.
There. That was them. She knew it. A large group of Jews were shuffling along, their enthusiasm for their journey apparently beginning to wane.
She hopped down from the rock. The men drew closer, and she knew right away which one was the rabbi Jesus. He was the only one who didn’t look miserable.
They were arguing over something. That is, the rabbi wasn’t. The others were. She caught snatches of it on the breeze. Why are we out here? Why are we wasting our time with pagans? Isn’t our mission to the lost tribes of Israel?
Jesus was, like a mother with a cranky toddler clinging to the legs, roundly ignoring them.
They were nearly upon her now. It was time. “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!” she called. “My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
She gaped. It wasn’t supposed to work like this. Wasn’t he supposed to go and heal the girl, and perhaps admonish her to tell no one? That’s how the stories always went.
Instead, he sat down on a rock on the other side of the road, and took a drink from his waterskin.
But he had healed so many! He would answer her. She knew he would. Just thirsty, that was all. Maybe he hadn’t heard her over his disciples’ arguing. She called out again.
His eyes flashed her way, and then back to his own patch of ground. He took another sip.
She called again.
Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
Well, that was hopeful. If pestering his disciples was what it took to persuade this rabbi to heal her daughter, so be it.
She started to call again, and then stopped herself. Jesus was about to speak to his disciples.
He spread his hands helplessly, shrugged, and said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When he’d gotten that much out, he pressed his lips together to keep the edge of a smile from escaping, and quickly took another sip of water to cover-over. If this weren’t a famous Jewish rabbi, she’d have sworn she’d heard a child’s sing-song mocking in that tone.
No, not her imagination. That’s what his disciples had been arguing about, wasn’t it? He was giving them their words right back at them.
She wondered if this was going to devolve into one of those handwashing incidents. Men. Impossibly distractable. She couldn’t leave this to chance. She crossed the road, and came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
The disciples stepped back, as if she had some kind of Canaanite-disease they might catch from her.
She had an intense pity for this rabbi — he could make the blind see and the lame walk, and these were the men he had to spend all day with?
Well. They weren’t her problem.
She waited. He would answer. She knew he would.
One of his followers muttered, “Just heal the wretched girl so we can get moving.”
Now the rabbi allowed that ironic smile to escape into plain view. This was what he had been waiting for. So now you’re willing for me to heal her? Because it’s convenient for you? That’s how we’re going to use the power of life and death, then? He raised his voice an octave and bobbled his head, paraphrasing his disciples’ argument so they could see how absurd it sounded as He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
The muttering disciple squeezed his eyes shut, cringing, as those words rang in all their vapidity.
She snorted. No one had told her he had a thing for puns. Well. If it was a game of words he wanted, a game she would play. She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
His disciples stared at her. Had she just said that?
Yes she had.
She would do whatever it took. She didn’t care what they thought.
She needed this Jesus. She could not let him go until he healed her daughter.
There was silence. No one dared move. Way down the road, you could hear two children chasing after a runaway goat. She watched only him. Waiting.
The smile on the rabbi’s face dissolved into grief. He knew. About her. About her daughter. What it was like. Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Let it be done.
He had said it. He had said it!
And she knew at that instant that it had been done.
She could have kissed the man.
She eyed his disciples and thought better of it.
Jesus rose, taking a final sip from that waterskin, and made to herd his flock of chastened understudies down the road. She was dismissed. Go in peace.
She went. She had a daughter to recover.
Artwork: The Canaanite Woman, via Wikimedia [Public Domain]