Today’s Gospel reading presents us with a big question. Was Jesus deliberately trying to be exclusive in his ministry when he told his disciples that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel when the Canaanite woman called upon him for mercy and healing for her daughter? Or was there some other motive behind his initial silence and then these words? Silence can be a powerful thing. I believe that Jesus’ silences spoke with deep meaning, calling forth from those who believed both faith and love.
I think that there are at least three possible answers to these questions. First, up to that point he could have been thinking within the limitations of his human nature, not yet realizing the full meaning of his divine nature. A second possible answer is that he was trying to challenge the faith of that Canaanite woman, whom as a Jew, he would not have considered as being on the same religious level as himself. The third possibility is that he was fully cognizant of his divine mission as the Messiah, and he was trying to challenge the thinking of his disciples and enable them to understand the Messianic mission in a more universal way.
Jesus had gone with his disciples to the region of Tyre and Sidon on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, Gentile territory, in order to get away from the arguments and criticisms of the Pharisees. He wanted to have some quiet time by himself with the disciples. I think that we can see how Jesus’ disciples were trying to protect of his privacy. Using some imagination, I picture them walking along the sandy beach. At first Jesus did not answer when the woman began to call out for his help, asking him to heal her daughter, who was suffering some mental illness; being tormented by demons, as people believed in those days. The disciples, being concerned for Jesus asked him to send her away. Instead of doing that, after saying that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, he entered into dialogue with the woman. A motivating factor in this was probably the fact that she called out to Jesus as Son of David. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” (Mt. 15:22b) This showed that she recognized him, and acknowledged her belief in him as the Messiah.
Some of the arguments against the first two interpretations of Jesus’ way of dealing with the Canaanite woman that I have suggested are that Jesus had already performed a healing miracle for a Gentile, for the servant of a Roman Centurion who lived at Capernaum. (Mt. 8:5-13) Also, in John’s Gospel, early in his ministry he had spoken openly with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria, breaking several precedents. In some of the O.T. Prophets there are also references to acceptance of Gentiles, and Isaiah even refers to the Temple at Jerusalem as a house of prayer for all people (cf. Isa. 56:7). When Jesus drove the money changers out of the Temple he used those same words concerning the Temple, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”(Mk. 11:17) These are all references to inclusiveness in Jesus’ thinking. Considering these references, it seems unlikely that at the point in his ministry when he met the Canaanite woman he would not have been aware of his divine nature and universality of the Messianic mission that he was carrying out. Therefore, I believe that Jesus was acting in order to expand his disciples’ thinking about his mission in the world.
There is a certain playfulness in Jesus’ dialogue with the Canaanite woman. To mention dogs or to compare any person or class of persons to dogs was considered very disparaging. The dogs that roamed the streets of any town or village in those days were unattractive and unfriendly. But Jesus used the word for pet dogs when he told the woman that it was not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the puppy dogs. The woman showed Jesus both her faith and her wit when she was able came back quickly in response to his remark. By reminding Jesus that even little pet dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table, that woman showed us the way in which God’s grace can be received by anyone who is able to respond with faith.
Hearing the woman’s response, Jesus acknowledged her faith, and healed her daughter instantly.
In just such a way, I think that we can believe that Jesus receives the prayers of anyone who prays with sincerity and faith, and answers in mercy and in love.
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