Jesus had reasons for going to Syria
and its hard not to see it as a retreat to grieve and regroup.
He has been disappointed and rejected in his hometown synagogue.
And now John has been murdered in prison.
Jesus may well, before the curtain of the Gospel tradition rises,
have been a follower of John the Baptist,
and Matthew says that when Jesus heard he was dead, he got into a boat
alone, and went to a deserted place.
But the crowds follow him there.
And they follow him when he crosses the water again.
Then Jerusalem people show up to examine him and it goes badly.
He leaves again. He flees, this time beyond an ethnic border—
into the district of Tyre and Sidon.
The Palestinian world Jesus knew was a complicated, mixed up place. The
lines between those who praised the God of Israel and their neighbors weren’t hard or clear in a world that had been scoured and tossed by conquesting armies for centuries—hardly sharper than the lines within Judaism, between the religious and political factions of elites, and between elites and the people of the land.
But Matthew’s way of describing the woman who trails after the disciples shouting, demanding to be heard, clearly means to tell us that she was outside a boundary.
She’s a Canaanite. Another sort of people of the land. A remainder of those marked for destruction in the conquest of Israel’s promised land.
She followed them, shouting that her daughter was tormented.
Demanding to be seen, or begging to been seen
by this man who had nothing to do with her, but who she for some reason had faith would see her.
She received only his silence, but she kept going.
And this seems to have gone on for a long time. Jesus saying nothing, the disciples getting annoyed, even disgusted with her, until
they ask him to send her away.
But he doesn’t send her away. He speaks to her.
At last. And he rejects her claim on him.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
That’s her moment. Suddenly she isn’t following and shouting anymore. She’s right up close. She’s on her knees right in front of him, and asking again “Lord, help me.”
The exchange of words that follows is the center of the story. Reading Gospels side by side tells us that. Matthew and Mark tell different versions of this story, but the hard, sharp words Jesus puts between himself and the woman, they have exactly the same—“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” [a]
It’s possible to read all of of this as a contest of words. It might be that Jesus has taken her audacious, insistent and direct speech to him as a challenge, and challenges her with a saying, a proverb, about bread and dogs. And then the woman, recognizing what’s happening, responds with a saying of her own: “even the dogs eat the fallen crumbs.” Or perhaps “dog” is slur against Gentiles, and some early Jewish sources suggest that it may have been. It simply may not be possible for us to know with certainty what’s really going on in this conversation.[b]
But we know who the dogs are—its she and people like her—and the question is whether she has a claim.
And the point of Jesus’ speech to her is clear—He seems to have no intention at all of acting for her. His mission is for others first, and not for her daughter. For Israel—that’s just how Matthew tells us, earlier in the Gospel, how Jesus sent the disciples out to proclaim the good news: “go nowhere among the Gentiles,” he told them, “and enter no town of the Samaritans.”
That’s not the end. The last words the risen Jesus leaves with the disciples are entirely different: go, and make disciples of all nations. Go everywhere and baptize them into everything you have received. That’s the command of Easter.
But between those two words—between keeping the disciples from so much as entering the streets of Gentiles and then sending them to proclaim the universal wideness of God’s promises—we have this Canaanite woman, looking at Jesus—the Son of David, not of her own people—demanding to be regarded.
And he does. He chooses the freedom to contradict himself. And against what he had just said to her, he says “let it be done as you wish. And her daughter was healed.”
And what I pray you hear is that in healing this girl,
Jesus was standing up within the law of Israel,
which commanded the people to love the foreigner as themselves, because they had been foreigners once in Egypt themselves—as if
they were to offer the love the Lord kept for them when they slaves,
to those displaced and wandering in their shadows and borderlands.
He was standing up within the prophetic tradition of Isaiah,
shaped as the people reeled from the trauma of exile,
calling them to remember that God’s promise to Abraham was not for them alone,
but that all the families of the earth would be blessed through Israel–
that in the day of deliverance, the Lord would gather the outcasts of Israel and all peoples together at once, and bring them in equal joy to the holy mountain.
And that future hope broke into the present because she asked him to see her.
She stood there with a sign.
She waded into a river. She
climbed into the back of a semi-trailer.
She put her family in a raft.
And he allowed himself to see her.
And I think Jesus asks us to see her,
whoever she is and however she comes to us,
and ask ourselves if we can wait til Kingdom come
or if she has a claim on us, now.
a. b. The historical evidence for either of these explanations is thin. The possibility of a contest of wits is far more easily supported when looking at Mark’s variant story, where Jesus responds not to her faith, but “for that saying” (Mk 7.29).