By Pamela Lewis
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 15:21-28
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 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.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
The Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon were about 50 miles away from Jerusalem — not very far by today’s standards. But in Jesus’ time, the cultural distance between them was more significant than the physical one. In his gospel, Matthew, unable (or unwilling) to forget the ancestry of the woman who approaches Jesus, brings this cultural gulf into high relief by referring to her as a “Canaanite,” a name as evocative — and possibly a slur as offensive — as any of the various racial or ethnic epithets used in our time. While she and her people were called “Syrophoenicians,” or “Tyrians” and “Sidonians,” Matthew reminds us that this woman is the descendant of Israel’s ancient enemies.
The woman knows who she is in the eyes of non-Gentiles. But she also knows who Jesus is, which prompts her to seek his mercy for her demon-possessed daughter. In her pleas, she intercedes on behalf of her child to the supreme Intercessor. She may have heard that Jesus had healed Gentiles before, in Jewish territory, but Jesus is now in her territory.
Jesus’ apparently cold silence to the woman’s request (“The Word spoke not a word,” as Saint Augustine remarked on this scene), his seeming dismissiveness in stating that he was sent to save only the lost sheep of Israel, and his use of the word “dogs,” as Jews often referred to Gentiles, are jarringly unlike the one who was always ready to answer the cry of pain and grief. But these rebuffs elicit a more robust plea from the woman, and, undeterred, she turns the insult inside-out by acknowledging her low status, willing to accept whatever remains from the greater portion that will go to the Jews, even if it’s only crumbs.
Jesus praises the woman for nothing other than her “great faith,” which was tested harshly by the suffering over her possessed child, as well as by Jesus’ seeming indifference. Clever, persistent, and trusting, her faith defines what a dedicated intercessor looks like. May we strive to look like her.
Pamela A. Lewis taught French for thirty years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New Yorker, Episcopal Journal, and The Living Church.
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Trinity Episcopal Church, Vero Beach, Fla.
The Diocese of Southern Highlands (Anglican Church of Tanzania)