Matthew 15:21-28 (VOICE) 21 Jesus left that place and withdrew to Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman—a non-Jew—came to Him. Canaanite Woman (wailing): Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is possessed by a demon. Have mercy, Lord! 23 Jesus said nothing. And the woman continued to wail. His disciples came to Him. Disciples: Do something—she keeps crying after us! Jesus: 24 I was sent here only to gather up the lost sheep of Israel. 25 The woman came up to Jesus and knelt before Him. Canaanite Woman: Lord, help me! Jesus: 26 It is not right to waste the children’s bread by feeding dogs. Canaanite Woman: 27 But, Lord, even dogs eat the crumbs that fall by the table as their master is eating. 28 Jesus—whose ancestors included Ruth and Rahab—spoke with kindness and insight. Jesus: Woman, you have great faith. And your request is done. And her daughter was healed, right then and from then on.
This passage from the gospel according to Matthew makes for a bit of a difficult read. In the brief story, it is bad enough that the disciples – as they often do – seem to get things wrong as they aren’t interested in helping a woman near them, who is clearly in need. The real trouble here, what makes us really uncomfortable is that Jesus seems to agree with them – at least at first.
To get a full understanding of the situation, some background information is necessary. Tyre and Sidon were Gentile territory, but more than that, to faithful Jews like Jesus’ disciples (and the first readers of the gospel of Matthew) Tyre and Sidon were known as some of the worst, most reprehensible gentiles (see Ezekiel 28); added to this the woman is described as either ‘Canaanite’ or ‘Syro-Phoenician’, these are interchangeable terms for the descendants of the people that were living in the Promised Land when Joshua lead the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan.
What that means is that this woman, was not someone that a Jewish person was supposed to care about. That isn’t actually true, the expectation would actually be that this woman and her people would be despised and looked down upon.
So when Jesus calls the woman a dog – a term that can’t be somehow excused away by differences in culture and time, it was just as offensive in Jesus day to call a woman a dog as it would be today – while it is jarring for us to hear, the disciples probably nodded along in agreement.
This woman wasn’t their concern. In fact, if she was anything to them, she was an enemy. If there was anyone that would definitely be a ‘them’ and someone not be included in an understanding of ‘us’, it was a ‘Canaanite’ from Tyre or Sidon (which is where the infamous Jezebel was from).
I believe that Jesus goes along with the expected negative response to this woman in order to highlight a truth that is as essential for us today as it was for the disciples then. To group people as ‘us’ and ‘them’ to seek to sift those around us into categories of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’, those who we have a responsibility to help and care for and those that are someone else’s problem is to betray your status as a beloved child of God.
As citizen’s of heaven and ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, there is no beloved child of God – so that means there is no one, anywhere – that is to be understood as anything other than our family. From the very beginning of time, we have been asking ‘am I my brothers’ keeper?’ (Gen 4). And when we have moved passed that question, accepting that to be a part of the family of God is to accept mutual responsibility for each other, we have too often devoted our time not to helping as many of our siblings as possible, but to defining our family as narrowly as possible.
In our story this day, Jesus sets the stage for the Canaanite woman to remind us all that God’s love and justice, grace and peace are not a birthright reserved for a lucky few that happened to have been born in the right place to the right people.
This woman’s faith, faithfulness, and persistence in her appeal to Jesus remind us that the love and grace of God is intended for all, and is for all that would receive it by welcoming Jesus into their hearts and lives.
Our role in all of this then, is to do all we can to share, not just the scraps from the table, not just the leftovers, but all of the feast of blessing that is God’s love and presence with us with any of our sister’s or brother’s that are hurting, hungry, or in need.
Sharing God’s Love,
Prayer: Lord, help us to see as you see. Don’t allow us to see the differences between us as bigger than the love and grace that comes from you to save and unite us. Help us to reach out and share with open arms the gifts and blessings we have already freely received. Amen.