What’s with Jesus? Why is he so cranky? Let’s back up and try to figure out what’s going on here.
Jesus and the disciples have just left Gennesaret, the plain at the northwest of the Sea of Galilee and entered the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, a district in southern Phoenicia on the Mediterranean coast, just north of Palestine.
In ancient times, this land, including Tyre and Sidon, was inhabited by the Canaanites. The Phoenicians were descended from the Canaanites. The country was taken by the Greeks under Alexander the Great, and those cities in the time of Jesus were Greek cities.
For Jesus, this was a deliberate withdrawal. He needed to get away from the demands of the crowds and the hostility of the Pharisees to prepare himself and his disciples for the Cross that waited for him in Jerusalem. Wherever he went in Palestine the crowds were sure to find him. So he went north through Galilee to the land where the Phoenicians dwelt. This is the only occasion when Jesus was ever outside of Jewish territory.
There, an unnamed woman of Canaan confronts him. She was a Gentile, living under Greek government, and probably speaking the Greek language. She was a Syro-Phoenician by birth, descended from the ancient Canaanites, considered by the Jews to be a sinful race, exemplifying all that was wicked and godless.
Apparently Jesus’ reputation as a healer and exorcist went before him into this region, and the woman had heard of his healing gifts. Her daughter was tormented by a demon and she had tried everything she could to find relief for her child.
Jesus’ first response to this shouting Gentile woman is silence. In his tiredness and wish to escape the crowds, he ignores her. The disciples were embarrassed. “Send her away,” they said, “for she keeps shouting after us.” In other words, “she’s making a terrible fuss and we want to get her out of here.” But the woman asks again.
This time Jesus refuses her. Jesus was faced with an obvious problem. No doubt he was moved with compassion for this woman, but she was a Gentile. Not only was she a Gentile, but she belonged to Canaanite stock, the ancient enemies of the Jews. At this point Jesus’ ministry was primarily to the Jews, and this woman was obviously an “outsider.”
Outsider or not, she is no shrinking violet. Driven to take desperate measures, this Gentile woman continues to plead for her afflicted daughter.
Jesus attempts to dissuade the woman by telling her that his mission is to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When she isn’t deterred and petitions him even more, Jesus adds the unusually harsh words, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Just like children are fed before the pets, the Gospel is offered to the children of Israel before outsiders.
But the woman doesn’t give up. In her desperation this undaunted Gentile woman accepts Jesus’ response to her pleas, but persists, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” The woman in her humility and perceptiveness admits that Jesus’ own nation has first claim on the blessings he brings.
The strength of her persistent plea reveals her loving concern for her daughter, a love which eclipses all ethnic division and pride. She believes that an impure “outsider” may claim what the covenant people fail to claim. She takes Jesus’ hurtful image of throwing crumbs to the pet dogs and shows him that for the love of her child and because of her trust in him, she is prepared to beg for what she seeks.
She is right and Jesus knows it. She is the only person in all the Gospels to win an argument with Jesus.
She may be asking for the scraps that fall from the table, but Jesus will give her his full attention, and the healing that she seeks. Why? Because Jesus knows that Jews and Gentiles belong to the same creator, redeemer God. Both will be fed from the same table. Jesus exclaims, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Her “great faith” isn’t so much an amount, but rather, simply the fact that she persists, holds on. She won’t let Jesus go until she gets the blessing she seeks for her daughter. Persistence and faith make a powerful combination.
This woman spoke out, offering a testimony that rings through the ages: “See me as a person, not as a woman, or Canaanite, or minority, foreigner, or someone of a different religion. See me as a person and child of God in need.” Jesus did and her daughter was instantly healed.
What we see in this encounter is a fierce and faithful Gentile woman forcing the humanity of Jesus to realize his calling to be a spiritual resource for the whole world. From this point on, Jesus doesn’t hold his saving power in reserve but expands his circle of love and God’s compassionate mercy to those considered “outsiders” as he opens himself to the whole world in mission.
This passage invites us to imagine that God’s purpose unfolded throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, and continues to do so in our own lives and experiences. What this episode suggests to us is that we also may need to greatly grow to become what God intends us to be.
When we reach out in our Lord’s compassion and care beyond the limits of our own community, we are following in Jesus’ steps. When we reach out in faith and persistence, we too can discover the deep riches of God’s compassionate love and grace.
Resources: William Barclay, 1975; Herbert O’Driscoll, 1990; David Lose, 2014, 2017; Synthesis, 2014, 2017.