Pastoral Message – August 20, 2023
Even non-believers would have a hard time criticizing Jesus for being uncaring, rigid, or callous. Throughout the Gospels, His words and actions are almost always loving, empathetic, and understanding. I say “almost always” because today we read about a rare (perhaps, the only) encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman who needs His help in which Jesus refuses her request (at least initially) and, to make matters worse, He insults the woman.
Jesus explains that his mission is “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Yet, Jesus intentionally left Jewish territory and entered this woman’s world. Furthermore, although the apostles consider this Canaanite woman to be an unclean outsider, she actually has a better grasp of Jesus’ identity than they do. She greets Jesus as the “Son of David.” It appears that word about Jesus had spread to this region and that this woman not only knows who Jesus is but also has faith in what he can accomplish. She not only recognizes Him as a roaming healer but also as a rightful king. Her recognition is all the more remarkable because the disciples have been a bit slow in recognizing Jesus. Yet, this “unclean” Canaanite woman hails Jesus as the Son of David, begs his mercy, and entreats His power over a demon that has “severely” possessed her daughter.
Jesus’ response is, perhaps, the most perplexing piece of this narrative. At first, He does not say a word to her, but he refuses to send her away. When He finally does address her, He explains to her that His mission is first to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The need in Israel is indeed great. For their part, the disciples tell him to send her away because they are simply tired of hearing her cries. Perhaps, Jesus’ refusal to listen to the disciples gave the woman hope that He would hear her request.
As a sign of respect befitting a king, she kneels before him. For the woman to treat Jesus in this manner is in keeping with her earlier declaration of Jesus as the Son of David. Kneeling is not only a sign of kingship, but also recognition of power. There is a connection between those who kneel before Jesus and the healings that Jesus performs. A leper kneels before Jesus and asks to be made clean. A ruler kneels and asks for his daughter’s healing. This woman kneels before one whom she recognizes as having authority not only to sit on the throne of David, but to wield power over evil.
When the woman again cries for help, Jesus responds by repeating that the focus of His mission is the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then, for no apparent reason, He tells her that He cannot give to “dogs” what is intended for the children. Thus, He likens her status as a Gentile to the status of the small, pet dogs who long to be fed from the table.
We don’t know whether the woman was insulted, but we do know that she persisted. Instead of walking away muttering obscenities at Jesus (as some of us might have done), the woman is not deterred. She claims a place in the household, but it is not a position of privilege or even the position of an insider. She accepts the status of a family’s dog by claiming that even the dog enjoys crumbs from the table.
She shows complete and total humility by placing her hope in what others have discarded. This Son of David has so much power that there is enough power for the house of Israel and more than enough left over for her. She is not trying to interfere with his mission. She just wants a crumb, recognizing that even a crumb from Jesus is powerful enough to defeat the demon that has possessed her daughter.
Finally, Jesus appears to soften His attitude and even praises her faith. He must be impressed that this woman seems to understand what the members of the household of Israel have yet to grasp. Jesus is not just hope for Israel, but hope for the world. What comes out of the Canaanite woman’s heart is faith – certainty that Jesus has power enough for Israel and power enough to save her non-Israelite daughter.
Her words demonstrate that the boundary separating her from the house of Israel must be reconsidered. With a faith so pure, how can she be deemed unclean? The encounter with the Canaanite woman prepares the reader for Jesus’ great commission to go and to make disciples of all the nations. Certainly, the apostles and Paul took their commission seriously as they journeyed throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean region. After some early debate, it was firmly established that the Church was indeed “catholic” (universal) in its reach. The encounter with the Canaanite woman reminds us that God is constantly entering new territory and breaking boundaries. Our God is in the unsettling business of meeting outsiders and granting them not just a crumb, but a place at the table. He asks us to do the same.