Ethnic boundaries: apparently even Jesus had trouble with them. Case in point: Sunday’s Gospel reading from Matthew 15:21-28. A woman from “the outside,” known as the Canaanite woman, spars with Jesus and convinces him to heal her daughter. And Jesus is oddly cranky about the whole thing, at least in the beginning.
(Note: The Canaanite woman to which Matthew refers is the same person that Mark calls the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30.Both Matthew and Mark emphasize that this woman is an outsider, both religiously and geographically.)
The woman: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Matthew 15:22
Jesus: “I was sent only to the the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Matthew 15:22
The woman: But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” Matthew 15:25
Jesus: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Matthew 15:26
The woman: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Matthew 15:27
Jesus: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:28
Up until this point in his ministry, Jesus has concentrated on those people of the Jewish faith. But in this moment, in a strange and unwelcoming country, he faces a Gentile who identifies him as Lord, shouts at him, then kneels at his feet, begging him to heal her tormented daughter. Who is this strange woman? Why is she not accompanied by a man? To be out alone addressing a man to whom she was not related was simply not done. Yet she presses forward like a bulldog—and it seems she reminds Jesus of one.
When Jesus says that it is not fair to give food meant for the children (God’s children being the Jews) to dogs (Gentiles being everyone else), she throws his words back at him, saying that even dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall under the table—implying that even a wee bit of Jesus’ power (even the leftovers) would heal her daughter.
He initially ignores her, reminding her and his disciples that he was sent only to the house of Israel, and that it is not fair for Gentiles to receive Israel’s due. Yet, in the end, he heals the woman’s daughter because of her faith. And he does one more thing: he heals the girl long-distance. She’s not there to lay hands upon; but in a rare long-distance display of power, he brings her to wholeness.
Puzzling and off-putting, Jesus is initially rude and unwilling to share his healing powers with a desperate mother because she is not Jewish. Yikes.
Over the years, this story has understood in different ways: Jesus was only testing the woman; his ministry was changed because of her; the term for “dog” was the same as the affectionate word for “puppy,” this story symbolizes Jesus’ ministry to all the world, etc.
My reading: Jesus was rude, at least initially. Fully divine and fully human, here he expresses human emotions. And yet this story gives Jesus’ actions over his lifetime more credibility, rather than less. He gets tired. He was sent to the house of Israel first. And no doubt he is still grieving the recent death of his cousin, forerunner, and soulmate, John the Baptist.
Back to the woman: She loved her daughter and knew Jesus could cure her. And she knew who Jesus was, as evidenced by her statement, “Son of David.” When Jesus and the disciples ignored her, she did not back down. When he refused her verbally, she did not flee. Like a master judo player, who uses the energy of his/her opponent to direct the opponent’s flight path, she engages Jesus, coming back at him with words he had already used, specifically the word “dog.”
Boldly, the woman persevered—and Jesus healed her daughter because of it. And from that day forward, we see more evidence in Jesus’ ministry of reaching out “to the other side” — i.e. the Gentiles.
I like this story especially because it appears to be a direct reporting of a confusing situation. Jesus’ actions and words initially aren’t perfect. But the situation is resolved because of divine and human love finding each other and triumphing through awkward social mores, illness and fatigue. Boundaries that were initial stumbling blocks were crossed, taken down. Wholeness was achieved. Healing had occurred on all sides.
May we know that same love and healing—human and divine, crossing all boundaries—in and through us during these tumultuous times.
Photo credit: Scott Gunn. Subject: George