This was a woman who know her “place.” She had little choice in that, being from a part of the country where Canaanites were ancestral enemies of Israel. By Jewish standards, her nationality represented all that is immoral, godless, and ritually unclean.
Yet in her honesty and self-identification as “needy” she also manifests a confidence that even as a Gentile she would be able to receive one of the miraculous healings that Jesus offered.
Her cry of “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,” places her in a position of beggar—but also a supplicant with the expectation of receiving an answer. We honor her in our reading today for having the courage, the gumption, the guts to plead for her daughter’s deliverance despite the risks and the odds against her.
I am troubled by the way Jesus responds to this woman. It sounds rather cruel and contemptuous. “It is unseemly to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
The children are the people of Israel and the “dogs,” well that would be us—the Gentiles. Was Jesus just having a bad day? Was he too exhausted to be his usual compassionate self? Or did Matthew doctor this text to insert his own anti-Gentile bias? We just don’t know.
I’m especially curious because John’s Gospel includes the long narrative of the encounter with Jesus and the Samaritan woman he meets at the well—another person who would have been despised by the Jewish people and with whom Rabbi Jesus would have been strongly ridiculed for engaging in conversation—let alone ask for a drink of water…from her cup.
In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us the God’s great compassion is extended to all people. “Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel. I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”
Of course, the limitation that Jesus put on the Apostles was to minister only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Was this his way of showing them by example that their future ministry would be to all people? You know they were pretty dense when it came to understanding things Jesus was trying to teach them. Was this Jesus’ way of “opening the door” to a ministry to the Gentiles by way of example?
In any case, this woman will not be put off so easily. She kneels before Jesus, addresses him again as “Lord,” grabs his clothing and once more asks for his help. She will not be deterred. She redirects his comment by pointing out that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.
This part of the dialog is a wonderful example of a kind of verbal exchange much admired in Hebrew culture, in which sharp wits match each other word for word. She does not deny that Jesus’ ministry to his own people may have priority; but the abundance of God’s blessings still leaves much for the Gentiles.
Like other healing accounts, this story has been preached to emphasize the Canaanite woman’s faith. I won’t debunk that approach, but I do see another perspective here. Have we ever been so desperate in some crisis situation that we don’t know where to turn?
I think of the conversation between Jesus and his disciples about whether they might have had enough and might want to walk away while the going was good. “Lord, to whom can we go?” asks Thomas. And when we are in a place of utter desperation like the Canaanite woman, to whom can we go? What is left for us but our pleading for the mercy of God, sometimes like the Canaanite woman on our knees?
Can humility and audacity coexist in us? It is entirely believable, even expected, that a mother—or parent—would be willing to lose their dignity, break her silence, shed her pride, and put her child’s welfare above all else. The Canaanite woman is not just a poor beggar of mercy from the wrong side of the tracks, she is a brave, strong, and realistic example for us today. She is tough and assured and a model for us.
The Saturday “E” Devotions offered by the Reverend Bob Dannals seems a good way to end this sermon:
“There is no normative model of Jesus’s encounter with people. Sometimes he begins the conversation; sometimes the other begins. Sometimes the message is clear and precise; other times muddled, mysterious, and even confusing. What’s clear in all of them is that God in Christ wants a relationship with them and us.
No matter who we are and where we live and what our ancestry or gene pool is, Jesus is interested in us.
“We can be silent in the presence of God or blurt out—sometimes awkwardly—our requests…it doesn’t seem to matter, at least not in regard to God’s unconditional love. So, take heart, wherever you are spiritually—on fire or dry as toast—God desires our company.”
Several years ago, the service leaflet at St. Paul’s listed the hymn we will sing at the offertory today and as it turns out, we didn’t catch the typo in the title of the hymn. It read, “There’s a wildness in Gods mercy,” not a “wideness.” I made a point in preaching that morning that maybe it wasn’t just a typo but a truth about God. In fact, I’d like to think that there is, indeed, a “wildness” to God’s mercy.