Jesus was exhausted. He needed a break from all the preaching, the healing, the crowds. He had to get away. So he “withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” (It’s all there in Mt. 15:21-28.) The place was non-Jewish. More than that, it was peopled by Syrophoenicians or Canaanites who at one time had fought viciously against the Jews, his people. Why did he pick this place for some R&R? Maybe he thought, no one will look for me here. Or, no one will know me here. Or, no one will bother me here. Peace at last!
But that was not to be. A Canaanite woman suddenly appears. How she heard about him and how she found him, we’ll never know. But we soon learn what impels her toward Jesus: Desperation. Total desperation. And love. Profound love. When she spots Jesus, she makes a beeline for him. Not begging his pardon for the intrusion, not introducing herself, she gets right to the point: Help me! Help me! My daughter is “tormented by a demon.” Many say that the young girl was probably having seizures—a terrifying condition even in today’s world of miracle drugs. The woman is in anguish, yet she is respectful, addressing Jesus as Lord and Son of David. How did she know to use these words? She is not a Jew. She probably did not know their scriptures or customs. As a Canaanite, she had her own set of beliefs. She had her own gods to pray to—and had probably already worn them out with her endless pleadings! And to no avail.
And how does Jesus respond to her pleas? He ignores her! Yes, he, the compassionate, attentive, tender Jesus ignores her! Why? we ask. Some say, “He was testing her.” Others say, “He was so doggedly tired.” Still others say, “She wasn’t Jewish!”
But the woman keeps at him—like a pesky mosquito that won’t go away! The disciples, impatient with her incessant, high-pitched nagging, suggest, “Lord, give her what she wants already. She’s driving us crazy!” But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead he says to the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” In other words, “You’re not one of us.” Ergo, I, a Jew, cannot help you, a Canaanite. But the woman doesn’t buy his excuse. She is too desperate to listen to logic–especially when it excludes her from the one thing she urgently desires: the cure of her child. So she keeps after him, “Please…please…please.” She even gets down on her knees.
And then Jesus says those words that most of us cringe at: “It is not right to take the bread of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Did we hear right? Did Jesus just call her a dog? Some try to take the sting out of his words by saying, “He was testing her—again.” Some note, “He used the diminuative word for dog. He called her a little dog.” As if that softens his metaphor. A little dog is still a dog! Other people say, “The word he used was blunted from repeated use.” The Jews always referred to Canaanites as dogs or swine. But if someone calls you a dog or a pig or a jerk or a moron or a blankety-blank, does that word hurt less the more often it’s used? I think not! About the only thing we know for certain from these words of Jesus is this: He was fully aware of the prejudices of his people. (How aware are we of the prejudices of our people against those people who are not us?)
And how does the woman respond to the insult? Does she slap him, spit at him, stomp away in a huff, or crumple into a little heap? No. Her cause is way too precious. She’s come way too far to turn away now. So she uses the only thing she has left: Her wit. Cleverly she matches metaphor for metaphor. She reminds Jesus that even the little dogs that sneak into the house, gobble up the scraps that fall from their master’s table. She embraces Jesus’ image of who he is and who she is and begs him (the master) to give her (a little dog) a crumb from his rich table: the cure of her daughter.
Jesus is astounded at her words, her wit, her spunk. I see him breaking out into a broad smile–maybe even an audible laugh. This woman, this mother, this outsider, this enemy, this pest refuses to take no for an answer. She who doesn’t know scripture, doesn’t know the prescribed prayers, doesn’t know proper doctrine—she it is who does know the one thing necessary: Go to Jesus! Go to Jesus with your problems, your anguish, your burdens, your shame, your trials, your worries, your fears, your deepest longings. Seek out Jesus. Find him. Pester him, if necessary. Trust him. Always.
Jesus praises the woman’s extraordinary faith. Then the story ends with: “And her daughter was healed at that moment.”
What irony in this story! What beauty! This unnamed outsider stretches Jesus’ mission beyond the borders of Israel. She shows that his message, his love, his power are meant for foreigners, enemies, and outcasts (including even women!). She proves once and for all: anyone can come to Jesus. Anyone.
The song I chose for today reminds me of the pleas of this great woman. It is “Lord, I Need You” by Matt Maher:
What strikes you the most about the story of the Canaanite woman?
How are you like her? How are you different from her?
Do you take your deepest longings to Jesus? Why or why not?
PS #1: Some of you received a partial reflection from me last week and/or the post on the Wright brothers from weeks ago. The partial reflection was my mistake. But the second one was a technical glitch that my “tech people” are looking into. I’m sorry for any confusion this may have caused.
PS #2: I will give you the results of my survey next week. But if you live in WAPPINGERS FALLS, NY and you took my survey, you are the winner of my new book, The Lord Is My Shepherd. Please let me know who you are. Click on “contact” at the top of this page, and fill in your name, email address, tell me you’re the winner under “message,” and click “submit.” I’ll be in touch with you!
PS #3: Last week I noticed that I received the 3,333 response to my blog. That “milestone” response was written by Sister Barbara, a Mercy Sister from Merion, PA . I thought she deserved a prize. So I sent her a small gift last week. Thanks again to all who have responded to this blog! Keep your comments coming!