What’s wrong with Jesus? He just doesn’t seem like himself, does he? Of course, he recently lost his cousin John to a terrible death. He has been trying, not very successfully, to get some downtime by himself. Was he just having a bad day?
We’re used to our Lord being moved with compassion for the crowds. Here, he initially ignores a woman's cries and doesn’t answer her. When he does answer her, it is to inform her that he was only sent to the Jewish people. Ouch. She was hopeful, but she is not qualified to have her prayer answered. Then, to make matters worse, Jesus calls her a dog. There’s no way to soften this insult. Children and dogs do not get the same food.
A non-Jewish foreigner, the woman is one of Israel's traditional enemies.' They worshiped the false god Baal. (The Jewish Annotated New Testament). And yet, this unnamed woman knew enough of Jesus to worship him as the Lord and Son of David. Even his own disciples had not gotten that far in their faith yet to recognize him as the messiah.
Our version says the woman “started shouting,” however, she cries out and will not be quiet. The word for “cry out” comes into English as “crazy.” She literally went crazy! What is most significant here is that the verb … describes ongoing action. She repeatedly kept crying out (Rob Myallis,lectionarygreek.blogspot.com). This was annoying. No wonder the disciples asked Jesus to send her away. Jesus just ignored her. This woman is not just kneeling and staying put, she was, according to the Greek,“ bowing” implying an ongoing action… that is not captured with “knelt.” This is consistent with the way this story has been told so far. The indignity of bowing is multiplied if someone is not answering and one has to bow repeatedly. That kind of humiliating persistence seems to be what Matthew is describing (D. Mark Davis, leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com).
It’s a good thing the gospel is not a narrative of a baseball game. The woman would have three strikes against her, but she refused to be out. She took Jesus’ insult of calling her a dog. She did not deny it, but used it for the benefit of her daughter. Through her dogged persistence, she proved her faith to Jesus. This is where everything changes.
“Jesus recognized that faith is to be found in unexpected places, that God is already at work far beyond those Jesus first believed he came for and he witnesses…the strength of such love which gives it all away for the sake of the one so beloved” (Janet Hunt, dancingwiththeword.com).
For us today, this gutsy gal exemplifies anyone who is outside our circle. In that respect, we, at times, can be more like the scribes, Pharisees and yes, the disciples. Yes, they are God’s representatives, but they just don’t get Jesus. I once heard it explained this way. If you draw a cross on a piece of paper, then draw some figures close to the cross and others farther away, you get a picture of our gospel. Some are close to the cross, but are facing away, while those who are farther away are facing the cross and are on the way, drawing closer to Jesus.
Where are we? Who are we facing? I dare say that on any given day, we are any or all of the characters in this passage. We may see ourselves as the desperate, gutsy gal. We are buried under a multitude of problems and are crying out for help. Not only that, but we may find ourselves praying repeatedly for a loved one or friend who needs healing.
Or, we may be on the inside, like the disciples, and see the woman representing outsiders. She had a different religion and dressed differently. She probably spoke with an accent. Don’t we sometimes assume someone like that isn’t so bright? Never mind, they speak six languages!
A former professor from Luther Seminary, Mary Hinkle, eloquently summarizes the great surprise of this gospel text in “Letter to a Canaanite Woman”:
Did you teach the teacher? I think you did. When he finally heard you and saw the face of your fierce need, God’s own Son came to see his life’s work as bigger than before. What he had not thought to look for in someone like you, he saw: faith. He saw your tenacious conviction that he could help, and amazed, he did.
I have thought that fear makes it impossible to imagine things. “Perfect fear casts out all imagination,” I have thought. But you were afraid—you must have been afraid of the demon and of your daughter’s suffering and afraid of all those foreign men and all their insults. You must have been afraid, yet you could see a new thing—healing—at the same time…You imagined healing before it happened and you showed it to the Healer. (Sermon preached at Luther Seminary)
Let us embrace our Canaanites—the homeless, immigrants, and those fleeing for their lives—and fill our church. Amen.