The Canaanite Woman

When Jesus first sent out his disciples, he told them “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6).  We can clearly see from that instruction given by him at the beginning of his ministry, that his initial focus was on the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the people of God.  The reason why the Israelites were the initial focus of Jesus’ ministry was because it was always part of God’s plan that they would be a light to the nations.  We see that in Isaiah: “I have a greater task for you, my servant. Not only will you restore to greatness the people of Israel who have survived, but I will also make you a light to the nations – so that all the world may be saved.” (Isaiah 49:6)  Jesus wanted the Israelites to present the message of salvation to the rest of the world.

Today’s Gospel reading comes later and is one of several that serve as a stepping stone in the way in which Jesus’ ministry subsequently develops.  It points to the outreach of the Gospel beyond Judaism; God’s people had had an opportunity to hear the Good News.  Now it was the turn of the Gentiles – the other nations.  The reading provides us with a glimpse of the Gentile mission which would soon prove so widespread and so successful – a mission which ultimately would be summarised by “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

In the reading, Jesus and his disciples were miles away from Jewish land – in Tyre and Sidon – a Gentile area.  It would have been unlikely that Jesus would even have been heard of in this area, and perhaps that was one of the reasons why he went.  Jesus had to step down into darkness, to bring about transformation and show the disciples the way.

It is here that a Canaanite woman approaches him and begins to cry out.  To do this she had to overcome three barriers that would have very much placed her on the fringe or even beyond the society in which Jesus lived.  These barriers were:

  1. She was a Gentile, someone who coming into contact with would make an Israelite unclean or defiled;
  2. She was a Canaanite, a people who historically had led God’s people astray, who in addition the Israelites had been told to wipe out!;
  3. She was a woman.

The woman in our reading demonstrated courage, self-sacrificial love and a willingness to push through barriers which were not of her choice or making.  Her motivation was simple – that of the deep love a mother has for a child, and a heartfelt desire of a mother yearning to see her daughter healed – in this case, her daughter who was “tormented by a demon.”  There are few other motivations that can be more powerful than the love a parent knows for a child.  I think that the woman also recognised deep down that the barriers she faced were quite simply wrong.  We can sometimes find ourselves held back in life and even oppressed by inappropriate barriers caused by prejudice, misunderstanding and discrimination.  We too need to have the courage to break through those barriers to be all that we are created to be.

The woman overcame these barriers in four astonishing ways – probably without even consciously thinking of how:

  1. She went ‘against the grain’ in approaching Jesus
  2. She acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah
  3. She acknowledged Jesus as her King and Master by calling him Lord
  4. She poured out her heart and threw herself upon Jesus’ mercy

It is important to recognise that the Canaanite woman did something quite unusual in pushing through those barriers.  Her words suggest that despite being a Gentile, she had some familiarity with Judaism – her opening words are typically Jewish “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  We know that the title “Son of David” was a Jewish title reserved for the one who was the Messiah, and three times she calls Jesus “Lord”.  We are not told how she had become familiar with Judaism.

Her act was driven by profound need and that incredibly powerful love a parent has for a child.  The woman was filled with deep concern – she was trying hard to capture Jesus’ attention by crying out for mercy with sincerity.  She refused to give up.

I am not sure how I would have reacted if someone I had never met before came up to me and said “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”  I am not sure how I would have responded at that time and in that context, with an encounter with a Gentile, a Canaanite at that and a woman.

Jesus responded in three very different challenging ways.  Perhaps surprisingly Jesus, we are told, at first simply gave no answer. “Jesus did not answer a word.”  I want you to imagine for a moment how you would feel if you were that woman, and you had cried out in desperation and got no response.  I want you to think about times you have prayed when you have not sensed a response.  I wonder if you have ever encountered someone who was distressed and desperate and in confronting you, at first you remain silent?  Don’t you find that people can say a lot by simply not replying?  What was Jesus trying to achieve by his lack of a reply?  I wonder who it was that had to come to faith – the woman, or Jesus’ disciples?  Jesus broke through the Jew/Gentile wall of division. Jesus dealt with Jews and Gentiles alike, shattering the “caste” system of His day—and shocking His Jewish brothers.  What Jesus was about to do would be an anathema to his disciples…they had to be in a place where they could accept what he was about to do.

And yet this absence of a response did not dissuade the woman.  She persisted and kept crying out after him – she was impassioned by the circumstances of her daughter.  Her faith was unwavering and constant.

In speaking to his disciples and also perhaps to the woman, Jesus then makes clear the initial focus of his mission and purpose “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  Was this statement a half question rather than a statement of closure, along the lines of ‘Was I sent only to the lost sheep of Israel?’  His statement invites further dialogue rather than closes it.

How the woman responds to this rebuff is nothing short of remarkable.  She began to worship Jesus as she came before him and knelt before him saying “Lord, help me!”  She was without any doubt, and knew that Jesus was the Messiah.  She presented herself to him humbled with an empty hand of need, from a position of selflessness and integrity.

Jesus’ third response was to say “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” which reflected the Jews’ universal assumption that the Kingdom of God was their exclusive right and preserve only, although some also expected that the overflow of God’s bounty would be made available to ‘righteous’ gentiles who kept the law.

Her response – “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” – reminds me of the Prayer of Humble Access from our communion services:

We do not presume

to come to this your table, merciful Lord,

trusting in our own righteousness,

but in your manifold and great mercies.

We are not worthy

so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.

But you are the same Lord

whose nature is always to have mercy.

Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,

so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ

and to drink his blood,

that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body

and our souls washed through his most precious blood,

and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

Amen.

It seems that the woman was aware of this overflow and wanted to claim that truth for her daughter’s sake, and also the word ‘dogs’ literally means ‘puppies’ so we must ask ourselves is Jesus’ response really half-affectionate?  Jesus is then moved with compassion by the constancy and persistence of the woman’s faith ““Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

I may not be a Gentile, a Canaanite or a woman of that time – but I know I am a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness, grace and redemption.  This encounter tells us something about the nature of intercessory prayer and the persistence which we too may show as we come before the Lord burdened and aching for him to act.  We do that coming just as we are, mindful that all have fallen short of the glory of God.  We must ask ourselves, are our desires for an outcome in prayer sincere, impassioned, and filled with selflessness and integrity? Or do we come before God with a completely different agenda?

This encounter also serves to remind us that we too are to be willing to have encounters in places outside of our comfort zone, as we seek to be Jesus’ hands and feet in serving our community.  Like the Israelites, we too are to be a light to the nations; in our communities, and our places of work.

We KNOW Jesus is the Messiah, we KNOW he is the Lord; we know what Jesus accomplished on the cross.  So let us come before the Lord just as that woman did; with hope and expectancy, with persistence and faith and with all that we are.  Let us pour out our heart in silent prayer and throw ourselves on his mercy.

Let us take a few moments in silence to offer up our own prayers to the Lord now.  Come just as you are, and share with him what is on your heart. Amen.

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