Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
So when you’re visiting foreign parts and encounter someone in need: ignore them, support those that wish to exclude them, declare your own background superior, call them less than human, and if all else fails see the light and help. So if at first your prejudices aren’t listened to, try twice more before questioning their validity!?
This is a very hard passage for us. When we read the gospels Jesus is the hero, the teller of tales, healer, friend of the excluded, denouncer of hypocrisy, whose very life declares to us what God is like; and then we get a passage like this where his words echo our worst thoughts and actions.
One approach to reading this passage is to put a twinkle in Jesus’ eye as he encourages the woman to challenge him as he parrots the prejudice of others. Of course Jesus didn’t believe those horrible things he says about her, he’s using her to shame his disciples. To an extent this works if we focus solely on Jesus, but what if we focus on her?
We are outside the borders of Galilee, in Phoenicia, in the district of Tyre and Sidon (cities with an evil reputation) and she is a Canaanite, both female and a historic enemy of the Jewish people. It is the woman who is at home, Jesus is the foreign visitor. She sees him, recognises him or recognises the spirit within him, and in her pain at her daughter’s infirmity she starts shouting. Her shouts declare Jesus Lord, Son of David, in effect master and messiah, and she begs for help. Jesus’ response is silence. She knows she is beyond the Jewish covenant but responds to Jesus’ presence in a similar way to Peter, who will declare him “Messiah, and Son of the living God” in the next chapter. She is making a declaration that even Jesus’ closest followers haven’t made yet, and Jesus ignores her.
If she was completely calm perhaps she could have picked up in Jesus’ body language as he encouraged her to challenge him, but she is far from calm. She is frantic because of her daughter, she is also having an intense spiritual experience as she encounters this foreigner and makes a declaration of faith in him, and he remains silent. Far from a scene of calm the image that most readily comes to me is of the rest of their conversation continuing with the disciples struggling to keep her at bay as she tries to slap him for being so rude. Fortunately, there is a happy ending and the woman is commended for her faith and her daughter is healed.
So if Jesus did believe what he said, what does that mean to us as his followers? The key to me is that he changed his mind. Their conversation started with him thinking she was worthless and ends with him declaring her worthy. Jesus was surprised, learnt something about himself and his people, and sought to alter his attitude and that of others.
we are all affected by our backgrounds,
experiences, and insecurities,
and some we see
and others we are blind to.
In all of our daily encounters,
in what we read or see,
in what we say or think,
open us up to the other.
Remind us that we are all children of God
and help us to see our family resemblances
as we share the journey of life together.
The Rev’d Dave Coaker is the minister of Leyland and Penwortham URCs in Lancashire.