Christ and the Canaanite Woman ~ c. 1784 by Jean-Germain Drouais (The Louvre)
Matthew 15: 21-28 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
The reading from Matthew’s Gospel is only 14 lines, 144 words, yet it contains several fascinating insights and angles. The most obvious take-away would be what the Canaanite woman teaches us about faith. Another might be the importance of persistence in prayer.
But I found myself stuck on one sentence in verse 23: “Jesus did not answer a word.”
A poor woman with a suffering child is begging for help, and he does not answer a word? That’s not like Jesus! He is usually the epitome of kindness, generosity.
He is the Healer.
Why wouldn’t he have responded immediately to the woman’s plea? And if we can get an answer to that question, what might we learn about the times we feel our own prayers have fallen on deaf ears?
But after researching what other homilists have said about this scripture, I believe we’re looking at one of the few times in the Bible that Jesus changed his mind. And that, my friends, I find a bit disconcerting! Isn’t it always disconcerting to realize how human Jesus really was? Disconcerting and comforting at the same time.
Let’s get back to why Jesus seemed to ignore the woman’s pleas. Mark’s version of the story tells us that Jesus was trying to travel sort of incognito, so it must have been troubling, possibly even annoying, that someone had recognized him. And not just someone, a Canaanite woman —a descendant of the race of Israel's enemies, and a woman to boot. She is shrewd enough to call him the Son of David, in effect recognizing his kingship, when most of his own people did not. She was humble and faithful enough to believe he could heal her daughter from afar, because she came to him alone. This sounds to me like a first-hand account of something that really happened, because an evangelist making up the story just to teach a lesson would certainly have portrayed Jesus as more compassionate and caring.
The reaction of the disciples is also interesting. They should have been running interference for Jesus, but their motives seemed very selfish. They too, were looking for some peace and quiet, and it sounds like they just wanted Jesus to get rid of her, either by granting her request or just telling her to get lost. I certainly identify with that, don’t you? Haven’t we all had times with annoying people when we wanted to tell them to get lost?
When Jesus does respond, the significance is profound. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” This reflects not only his clear understanding of what he thinks his ministry is all about, but also a focused determination not to get distracted from that ministry. At that moment, he felt he was obeying the divine will to confine his ministry to the Jewish people. The pressure of ascertaining and following his Father’s will was a hallmark of his ministry. He realized he couldn’t help everyone who needed help, so it seems he felt the need to sharply focus on what he thought God wanted him to do and ignore the rest. Even with her repeated imploring, he says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” He clearly was referring to the children of Israel, and the dogs were the Gentiles.
But look at what happens next. According to one source, Jesus used a diminutive for the word “dogs” — it was not a word for the mangy, starving, and fierce stray dogs that wandered the cities in search of food, but rather the word used to talk about a domestic pet that would have lived with the family and been expected to be near the table.
The woman must have picked up on this immediately, because when she replied, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table,” she shifts the whole conversation from one in which she is an outsider to one in which she is a beloved part of the family, albeit an inferior one. She reframes the entire picture to show Jesus that she recognizes his primary ministry but reminds him that she is still part of the greater family of God and that by being satisfied with the crumbs, she is not depriving the children at all.
Homilist Katrina Whitley sums this up beautifully. “In those few minutes, it seems that Jesus recognized his mission had expanded. He didn’t just come for the children of Israel. His mercy extends to us all.”
Jesus’s response to grant the woman’s request was then so immediate, that I wondered if he wasn't secretly respectful of the woman’s cleverness… joyful even that the she had opened up a way for him to grant her request without compromising his sense of obedience to God.
I think we can learn something else from watching Jesus in this situation. When we are seeking God’s will for our lives—as Jesus taught us to do—we may think we know what we're supposed to do on any particular day, but sometimes we're confronted with circumstances that can shift our perspective and make us realize God wants us to do something we hadn't planned on.
And those circumstances might even come in the form of an annoying stranger.
I wrote this sermon and delivered it on August 17, 2014, at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Woodstock, VA, at their 8am and 11:15am services