Healing the People
From there Jesus took a trip to Tyre and Sidon. They had hardly arrived when a Canaanite woman came down from the hills and pleaded, “Mercy, Master, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit.”
Jesus ignored her. The disciples came and complained, “Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy.”
Jesus refused, telling them, “I’ve got my hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel.”
Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. “Master, help me.”
He said, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.”
She was quick: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.”
Jesus gave in. “Oh, woman, your faith is something else. What you want is what you get!” Right then her daughter became well.
The woman who pesters Jesus and the disciples has the faith not to give up when things look bad, and that’s an important lesson for all of us. But we can’t ignore that fact that there are some tricky bits in this passage!
The woman is a Canaanite. Canaanites are not Jewish, and the Jews had quite a bit of argy-bargy with them in the Old Testament (we won’t go into that because I don’t know much about it!). So, this woman may be viewed with a lot of prejudice by the group around Jesus. She’s a different religion; her nation is a historically an enemy. And she’s a woman approaching a group of men.
Jesus says he can’t help her because he’s so busy with the ‘lost sheep of Israel’. The disciples just think she’s a pain. When she comes back to him, Jesus compares helping her instead of his own people to taking food from children to give to dogs. This isn’t the loving, compassionate approach we expect from Jesus and the disciples!
What is going on?
Well, we know the disciples are only human, unlike Jesus who is both God and human, and scripture shows they’re not always glowing examples, any more than we are.
But how can we explain the way Jesus reacts to her at first, and why he is so hostile when he talks to her?
I think reading back in Matthew’s Gospel a bit to see what’s just happened might help. Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist has been killed by Herod. Peter’s faith had a wobble when he tried to walk on the water. The Pharisees and scribes – the officials of the Jewish faith – have accused Jesus and his disciples of breaking Jewish tradition, and he has responded by telling them they think more of man-made religious tradition than they do of the real laws of God.
Right after that, he and the disciples go away to Tyre and Sidon – and that was a Gentile area.
The Old Testament prophecies talk about the Messiah being sent for the people of Israel – the Jews. Even those closest to him who already believe he’s the Son of God would expect him to be just for people of their own faith. But when Jesus and his mission are being rejected by the people at the very top of the religion – the king, the scribes and Pharisees – Jesus pays a visit to the Gentiles.
As soon as he gets there, a woman comes racing to meet him because she believes he can save her child. She gets knocked back by Jesus, and by the disciples, but her faith in him means she knows he can help, and she knows he will help, so she isn’t going to give up trying.
Compared to Peter in last Sunday’s Gospel, her faith isn’t shaken when she runs into problems, and it’s this persistent faith that Jesus rewards. Jesus is already getting a better response from a Gentile than from some of the ‘lost sheep of Israel’.
She doesn’t challenge Jesus for comparing helping her to taking food from children to give to dogs, but she uses a clever argument, that I think is another big message in this story - dogs eat the leftovers people don’t want. They aren’t taking anything away from humans at all. If the Jews - whose scripture says Jesus will be coming just for them – turn their noses up at what he has to offer, it’s only fair to offer it to the Gentiles, who like this woman, really do want it.
His mercy and help are endless, so that doesn’t take anything away from the people of Israel at all.
While it seems very tough on a really stressed woman who has to struggle to get Jesus to listen to her, maybe Jesus’s reaction is more about showing the disciples and the Jews in general that they are wrong to assume he’s only been sent for their own kind. Maybe his words and her argument are really for them.
So in the end, this passage is not only a lesson about having faith, being humble and respectful, and not giving up.
It teaches us that Jesus came for all of us, wherever we’re from, and whatever our religion or nationality is. And if he sees us all as equal, we certainly shouldn't be putting ourselves above others, or tolerating it when other people do.
Salesian Communications Worker
When I think of people as ‘other’
remind me they are my brothers and sisters.
When I think ‘people like me’ are special to you
remind me you lived and died to save all of us.
When I feel like giving up,
remind me there is always hope.