By Sherry Black
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 from that moment.
On first glance, this passage feels uncomfortable, doesn’t it?
Let’s take a step back. The Gospel of Matthew was written to a Jewish audience that was perhaps just enlarging its influence to include Gentiles. In Matthew, the first “Gentiles” we hear of are the Wise Men. Much later, in chapter 8, we hear the story of the Gentile centurion who asks for healing for his servant. Not many mentions, but significant ones.
Now here we are in Gentile country, and a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus. The land of Canaan had been captured and occupied by the Hebrews under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’ successor, centuries earlier, and there was still great animosity between Jews and Canaanites. In fact, it’s documented that they were referred to as “Gentile dogs.”
Jesus, son of God, son of Man, would have surely heard this slur. And he knew the current focus of his ministry was to Jews, not Gentiles. So when a lowly Gentile woman approaches, using all the right words to ask for help, what does he do? He does not answer. And when he does, he calls her a dog! How did he mean it? Why did he say that? Many people have guessed. Did he think he was above granting a Canaanite request? The disciples seemed to think so. “Send her away, she’s bothering us!”
Yet the persistent woman, with nothing to lose, keeps after Jesus, even after he apparently insults her. She accepts that she is not Jesus’ priority. Still, she doesn’t give up. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs from the table.”
And Jesus stops. He commends her for her faith, and her daughter is healed.
I was reminded of the story in Matthew 20 of the son who said he wouldn’t work in the vineyard that day, and then turned around and went. He is the one who did the will of his father.
What could this tell us about paying attention? About the will of the Father, of our Master?
The Very Rev. Sherry Black is a second-career Episcopal priest, and has been a full-time hospital chaplain for ten years. She also serves a small mission church as priest-in-charge, and is dean of her deanery.
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Today we pray for:
The Diocese of Lweru – The Anglican Church of Tanzania
St. Paul’s Bloor Street, Toronto, Ont.