I’ll be honest: if I were to set out to write a gospel, meant to announce the good news of Jesus Christ, I’m not sure I would have chosen to include Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman.
His interaction with her – first ignoring, then dismissing her – smacks of indifference (at best) or racism (at worst). This hardly sounds like how we might expect the Son of God to behave.
No, in my gospel I wouldn’t want Jesus to act like this. I would not include this story at all.
But we should be glad that Matthew did.
We should be glad Matthew included it, because it teaches us something important about Jesus, and it teaches us something important about ourselves in the process.
First, it teaches us that Jesus was human, and to be human means to struggle with our human limitations. And secondly, it demonstrates that Jesus was able to learn, and was willing to change his mind.
The paradox of the Incarnation means that, in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, a limitless God willingly took on the limitations of our humanity. As it says in the prologue to the Gospel of John: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
That means that when the Word became flesh, that flesh had to have his diapers changed. That means that Word become flesh had to learn his Hebrew alphabet. That means that Jesus – in his humanity – had to have made mistakes. Though without sin, Jesus was not exempt from the trial and error process of learning. The Word become flesh means that Jesus grew tired and weary; Jesus became angry and irritated. It means that Jesus experienced just about every human emotion, dealt with similar human limitations as do you and I. Jesus had to learn from his limitations.
Part of his human limitation is, I believe, on display here in his encounter with the Canaanite woman. The detail may get a bit lost on us, but by naming her as a Canaanite, Matthew is telling us something significant. He is telling us that she is specifically not like Jesus – which is to say, she is not Jewish. She probably looked a little different and perhaps spoke with a different accent. Her culture differed from what Jesus and his disciples may have been accustomed to.
Now in the earlier verses of today’s gospel lesson, we see Jesus doing a fantastic job ruffling the feathers of the Pharisees by telling them that they’ve made too big a deal of the purity laws; that ritual cleansing is really not all it’s chalked up to be. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,” he says, “but what comes out of the mouth that defiles; what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart…but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” Remember, Jesus here is doing exactly what rabbis did: he’s interpreting and prioritizing the Torah. And he’s telling them, clean hands are less important than purity of heart.
Having had enough of their religious regulation, Jesus “left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” It is here that this Canaanite woman (in her own region, on her own turf) calls out to Jesus “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Now, this is where we’d typically expect Jesus to stop, acknowledge the woman, and do something amazing. After all, word had spread all around the region about this man and the miracles he’d performed. Your child acting like the devil? Go see Jesus. He’ll heal her. That’s what Jesus does, right?
Well, not today. At least not at first. Initially, Jesus ignores her. Even after her persistent pleas, Jesus just ignores her.
It’s confusing. Sad, even. Why would Jesus ignore this woman’s cry for help? It’s not like she’s asking for a million dollars. She’s pleading on behalf of her tormented child.
So why is Jesus silent? And while we’re at it, we might as well ask: Why are we?
Well, the truth is, sometimes we just really don’t want to be bothered, do we? “We don’t need to be concerned about what happened in Charlottesville,” we secretly say to ourselves, “that happened all the way over in Virginia.” Except that some of the same racism and hatred was on display just a few miles from here at Travis Park.
“We don’t need to be worried about children who go to school hungry,” we rationalize, “someone else will take care of it.” Except these are the same children who get suspended or expelled at an alarmingly high rate, and this is the cycle that creates the school to prison pipeline.
“We don’t need to be worried about human beings dying in stifling shipping containers as they flee violence or lack of work in their own countries.” Except that just such a tragedy occurred right here in San Antonio just a few weeks ago.
Someone else will deal with it. Right, Jesus? Hello?
Whether we are tired, annoyed, or so absorbed in our own thoughts that we hardly notice the cry of others…someone out there is wondering, “Why is my cry for help being ignored?”
When the disciples finally urge Jesus to send the Canaanite woman away, he says something that gives us an insight into what he believed at the time was his core mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It is important for us to recognize that, at least according to Matthew’s telling of the story, Jesus saw his mission to be exclusively among his own people.
Nevertheless, the Canaanite woman persisted. Undeterred, she gets in his face, kneels before him, and finally gets his attention, “Lord, help me!”
And this is where it gets interesting.
Jesus’ dismissal of this Canaanite woman, though it may seem totally out of character, demonstrates an initial limitation of his imagination. “I can’t help this woman,” he may have thought, “I’ve barely begun to help my own people.”
And here’s the miracle…we have to be careful not to miss it, for it is both subtle and spectacular. Are you ready for it?
The miracle is that the Canaanite woman proves Jesus wrong. She proves him wrong!
Her persistence opens his eyes to a larger vision, and expands his mission.
The miracle here is that yes(!) Jesus continues to grow and learn; Jesus changes his mind as he is challenged by her great faith. Jesus begins to look past his own human limitations and presuppositions to see the shared, common humanity in the eyes of this woman.
Great is your faith, he tells her. Great enough to remain persistent, despite being ignored. Great enough to break through cultural difference. Great enough to gain the attention of Jesus, and change his mind.
If Jesus can learn, if Jesus can change his mind and expand his mission to respond to the Canaanite woman – what might we, as his disciples, take from this?
There are those around us who are crying out to be heard. Might we, like Jesus, be transformed by their great faith?