Jesus left from there and slipped away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And check it out! There was a Canaanite woman that lived there. She went out to Jesus, saying things like, “Show me some compassion, Sir, Son of David! My daughter is afflicted by a demon!”
Jesus just ignored her. His students went up to him and tried to convince him to do something. They said, “Help her out or send her away! Her nagging is driving us nuts!”
Jesus answered, “I wasn’t sent out to find anyone but the sheep that have strayed away from Israel’s flock.”
The woman approached and fell at his feet and said, “Sir, help me!”
But he simply answered, “It’s not right to take bread away from children and throw it to dogs.”
She responded, “That’s true, Sir, because the dogs are content to eat the scraps that fall from their owners’ tables.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Wow, ma’am! Your faith is huge! What you want has happened for you.” The woman’s daughter was cured at that exact moment.
(As Matthew Tells It, The New Peace Treaty: A New Translation of the New Testament)
The question I have after reading the Gospel reading for today is: Does Jesus sometimes have a hard time recognizing the “Jesus” in other people?” Anyone who has been paying attention the past couple of weeks will recognize that this has been a recurring theme with me – seeing Christ in others. It is an idea based around Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus declares that THE JUDGMENT is hinged upon how we treat “the least of these” because it is with the “least of these” that Jesus identifies. And is not that exactly what this woman represents? She is “the least of these”!
First of all, she is a woman in the First Century. As a woman she has very few rights, a lot of responsibilities, and no means of survival and support without being attached to a man who (for lack of a better word) owned her. She was somebody’s daughter until she became somebody’s wife, and if she met her responsibilities, she would hopefully be somebody’s (a man’s) mother. The fact that the woman is approaching Jesus and not her husband may suggest that her husband has died or divorced her. The fact that the woman approaches Jesus and not her father may suggest that her father had died or disowned her for some reason. The fact that the woman approaches Jesus and not her son may suggest that she had no son who could support her. All we know is that she has a daughter and that no man seems to be active in her life, which would make her unable to support herself and her child.
Secondly she is a Gentile woman addressing, not only a Jewish man, but a Jewish man who is a teacher, a preacher, and who is rumored to be holy. Canaanites were traditional enemies of Israel. The Canaanites were idolaters. The Jewish Scriptures repeatedly says that they performed abominations that offended God, so God used Israel to invade Canaan and remove the Canaanites. They were regarded by the Jews as being “unclean.” They were often referred to as “dogs” by the Jewish people because dogs will eat anything and roll in unclean things. So, just as a dog is unclean and keeps itself unclean because it does not know any better, so too do these Canaanites, from whom this woman comes.
So, does Jesus have a hard time seeing himself in this woman? Does Jesus find it hard to see himself in this unclean, unknowing, pagan, idolatrous, low on the totem pole, no means of support, Canaanite woman? Jesus is famous and she is a nobody. Jesus is a man, and she is a woman, and the two were not supposed to interact in polite society. Jesus is holy and she is unclean. Jesus is a teacher, and she (as far as the Jewish people were concerned) was ignorant. Can Jesus see himself in her?
This is after all only Chapter 15 of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus does not declare that he identifies with the “least of these” until the 25th Chapter. Maybe Jesus just is not there yet. Five chapters before, Jesus sent out the disciples in pairs to preach and teach and heal. Jesus explicitly told them not to go among the Gentiles, but to limit their activity to those who are Jewish. That does not fit in well with what most of us like to think about Jesus.
Jesus is human after all! One thing that humans have in common is that we learn. We learn as we go. We often think we know something, but then a person, or a situation arises and we learn that we were either wrong, or limited in what we thought we knew. Maybe this story is simply Jesus learning. Maybe it is Jesus learning the extent of who he is and the extent of his ministry. Maybe Jesus is learning that his old “Jewish” ideas of keeping himself and his activities to and for his fellow Jewish people was no longer enough, and that it was going to be expanded beyond the limits of Israel to the whole world.
Isaiah the Prophet had already declared that God would one day welcome even the Gentiles. We hear in the reading today:
The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
ministering to him,
loving the name of the LORD,
and becoming his servants—
all who keep the sabbath free from profanation
and hold to my covenant,
them I will bring to my holy mountain
and make joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be acceptable on my altar,
for my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all peoples.
And even the psalmist declares: “Let all the nations praise you!”
Yet, at first glance, Jesus seems to be caught up in the same old bigoted perceptions of his Jewish fellows. “It’s not right to take bread away from children and throw it to dogs,” he eventually tells the woman. But he says that ONLY after the disciples intervene for her. And why do they intervene? Do they do so because they are moved with compassion? NO! They intervene because the woman’s nagging is driving them nuts. She is an irritant. She will not just go away. She keeps following them and shouting and begging and the disciples have had enough. So they go to Jesus and tell him to either giver her what she wants or get rid of her because they cannot take her any more.
Was this a teaching moment? Was Jesus pretending to ignore her, not because he shares the bigotries of his Jewish fellows, but because he was using her to expose the bigotries of his disciples? They intercede for selfish reasons and they seem as if they could care less about this foreigner. This would be more in keeping with the Jesus we like. But if this is what we decide to believe and how we decide to interpret the text, let’s make sure we are doing it for a valid reason and not just because we are afraid to see Jesus as anything other than an idealized perfect human who always does and says the right thing by our standards. Jesus was “fully human” and sometimes, in our fullest moments of humanity, we put our foot in our mouths. Sometimes being fully human is being full of self. We know from the Gospels that Jesus gets tired and hungry and cranky. That is what it means to be fully human. Jesus as fully human may be like the rest of us, stuck in the context of our culture and our history and our own social bigotries and arrogance. Jesus as fully human can no more exist in a vacuum outside of the context of history any more than we can. So to question whether Jesus may have been on his “A-Game,” or at his most loving or pastoral is not sewing discord or doubt, but allowing Jesus to be human – just as we are human.
Maybe, our challenge is not simply to see Christ in each other, and to be Christ for each other, but it is also to see ourselves in Christ. Maybe we can learn something about ourselves if we have the courage to see that Jesus gets irritable, tired, anxious, and sometimes just does not want to deal with people. Nobody wants to be “on” all the time.
Maybe Jesus is in this Gentile region in the first place because he thinks he will not be so well-known there and can get away from the whole healing and teaching and preaching and ministry for a while. Maybe Jesus is trying to get some time off the clock and suddenly this woman appears who is in crisis and needs something from him. We know what that is like. We know what it is like to just want to leave our work at the office and not deal with anyone or anything, only to find that other people have other ideas, and we are stuck dealing with people or problems that we feel we should not have to be dealing with in the first place. In those moments we get irritable. We are short-tempered and we often say things we do not really mean. That is what human beings do. And that is what Jesus as fully human encounters from time to time just like us.
The one thing that we in the 21st Century can appreciate is that the tone of Jesus’ voice would give us much of the answer as to what he was thinking and feeling. With texts and emails, we often find ourselves in arguments or conflicts because someone chose to read our words in a manner that we did not intend. Everything seems meaner online, and maybe that is true in the Bible. Maybe we read Jesus being mean when he could have said his dog comment with an ironic tone, or in a playful voice, or in a joking manner. And the woman, to her credit, plays along.
Unfortunately for us, all we have are the words. We do not have comments or directions on how to read the words. And regardless of how Jesus says what he says to her, the one thing that is clear to us is that this woman is not taking no for an answer.
The woman is actually following Jesus’ own teaching about prayer. She is being persistent in prayer. She is like the widow nagging the judge in the middle of the night for justice, who receives justice because the judge wants her to go away. She is a woman who is asking for a loaf of bread for her daughter, and who refuses to receive a stone. She is persistent in prayer, determined to get the outcome she desires, and unwilling to believe or accept anything but what she is requesting from Jesus. It does not matter if that in the context of the story the woman does not believe in Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, or as fully divine, or the Christ, or anything else. It matters that we do! And we see in her a model for our own prayer – especially in those times when we feel that God and His Christ are ignoring us.
Regardless of everything else, the story ends with Jesus responding to her faith. When I read it, I hear and see Jesus just as surprised by her faith as the disciples would later be at seeing Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit. It is an “Aha” moment for us and it may even be an “aha” moment for Jesus. There are no limits to God’s love, and as God’s Christ – God’s love in action – there can be no limits to Jesus’ love. This, of course, means that, as followers and disciples of Jesus, there can be no limits to our love, but we, like God and God’s Christ, must extend that love to all people, seeing Christ in them, and being Christ to each other, seeing ourselves in Christ, and in those we serve in his name.