The Canaanite Woman: She Wouldn’t Take No for an Answer
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!
Good reminder about persistence Sr. Melannie. I sometimes need a reminder to talk to Jesus about everything and persist.
Good Morning Sr. Melannie!
I love the tenacity of this Caananite woman and how you unpacked this reading. So often, I am unlike her probably because we were raised “not to nag”! When it comes to matters of the heart and our deepest prayers and needs; we must be persistent and know that Jesus loves our tenaciousness and will smile upon us as well. Great post as always!
Thank you, Sr. Melannie. My 31 year old son has been battling cancer since 2011. I know the Canaanite woman’s feeling of desperation. What I appreciate is the reminder to persevere.
This woman’s tenacity and persistence in asking Jesus to cure her daughter is very comforting to me. I will continue to ask His help, believing He alone knows my needs. Thank you Sr. Melannie.
I love this reflection…it shows the human Jesus, which we may need to be reminded of…thanks Sister Melanie!
The Spirit works in wondrous ways. I am in the midst of preparing a one-day retreat for the women of my church. One of the conferences will focus on the story of the Syro-Phoenician (Canaanite) woman, although from Mark’s Gospel (7:24-30), not Matthew’s. Thank you for this wonderful reflection. I am reminded, too, of another persistent petitioner — the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8). Thank you for suggesting good music each week.
Sister Melannie –
As you said, I do cringe when I read Jesus’ response to the women and I absolutely love her wit and courage to match his metaphor and continue to ask for his help. Jesus is so merciful when he acknowledges her faith and heals her daughter. I can be persistent but my challenge is to leave my requests with Jesus and have faith that he is listening. I often try to take things into my own hands and solve the problem without him…. God, grant me the faith and patience to wait on the Lord without a doubt that he is listening! thanks for a wonderful reflection as usual! Peace, L
You really made the story of the Canaanite woman come alive for me. I could relate to every emotion you brought out that she was feeling. As a mother, I feel like I too have come to God in prayer that desperate. Your reflection and song warmed my cold winter day! Thank you!
Thank you, Sister, for this grace-filled reflection.
Not only do I love your reflections every week, but am so moved by your music choices. Many of them are new to me and I love that. Thanks so much, Sister.
Your reflection helped me have more insight into this event. I have always felt uncomfortable with Jesus calling the woman a “dog.” I like how you describe how his reaction might have been. I, along with others, appreciate the music you introduce us to. I have downloaded more than one song you have suggested. Thank you!
Dear Sister Melannie,
Thank you for fleshing out this very notable character–woman and foreigner–but possessing complete faith in Jesus. I wonder if her witty response to the Lord wasn’t prompted by the Spirit. As faith-filled people, we are urged to go forth with confidence knowing that, when necessary, words will be provided for us.
God bless you. Joanne
For the last several years I have ended my morning prayer with words from a song in Godspell. I learned these words come from a prayer of a thirteenth century English bishop: “To see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly.” I guess it must be my way of pestering Jesus. One of the results of that persistent prayer, I think, was that I ended up at a retreat you gave four years ago and through that retreat I came to read your blog, Sister Melannie. He listens!
Your reflection made me realize that, just as there is no disadvantage in being an “outsider” to Jesus, there is no advantage in being one of his own, unless this leads us to put all of our trust in him.
Thank you so much for your reflection. I’ve commented to you several times, but only in my head. This time I decided to send my thoughts down and send them to you. This reminded me of a button that this lady in my bank often wore. It read: “Pray until something happens.” I often thought about that and shared that saying with others. Now I have more to add to it. I love your blog – I “discovered” you through reading “Living Faith” – I always liked your reflections. By the way, I’m partial to Sisters of Notre Dame – I was taught in elementary school by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and I went to Trinity College (now University) in D.C., founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
Thank you for sharing God’s message…that He’s always with us, and we are never to give up on Him! I especially loved the part that maybe Jesus smiled, or even laughed at the woman’s spunk, wit, and determination. I love the thought of making Jesus smile sometimes…as there are also many times when I may cause Him sorrow. Even during those times, however, He never gives up on me! So, why would I ever give up on Him? HE IS MY LORD~HE IS MY LIFE!!!
Thank you again for making scripture come so alive. This is what I love about you, and your writings. You keep it simple and to the point.
This makes me want to go get that picture where Jesus is laughing.
What a comfort HE is. I have been nagging him for years about something, but, I know HE knows best !!! I’ll just keep after HIM !!!!
I think this understanding of Christ calling this woman a dog simply because she is not Jewish, was something I always glossed over, for obvious reasons. I hate that it is true. It makes me want to cry at the desperation and plight of women since Eve, and of all people looked down on by the Jews during these times described in scripture , as well as all people’s who have been oppressed by every set of people who happen to be in power at any given time during our human history. I’m simply not sure what to make of this. Even though your other readers comment so happily about persecerence and persistence in prayer, I do not share this sentiment as easily. However, I will continue to ignore my discomfort and hold my faith. I’m not sure if this makes me faithful or ignorant. I’ve always held that “doubt I’d the brother of truth.” This interpretation makes me doubt. I want the truth to be that Christ was bigger than his cultural traditions and beliefs regarding woman and non-Jewish people. Have you read anything to this effect? Anything accepted by the Church Cannon of course…?
I meant *perseverance and *is. Sorry for my typos.
I love Matt Maher’s songs and always look forward to seeing him at The Fest! I also am comforted by the fact that Jesus is ‘Okay’ with us pestering Him. I always wonder if he gets tired of my pestering him with trivial matters. Then, I remember to pray always throughout the day…
I so look forward to your wisdom, humor and comments each week.
I love when you share stories from your childhood and family!
Sometimes we need to be reminded that nuns, and priests are humans first….and they too, sometimes laugh and cry. We are all on this path together, and I LOVE following YOU!!
May you have a blessed week. Thank you for sharing your heart and love.