Updated: Aug 15, 2020
(I'm going to include the whole Gospel at the beginning of the reflection so you do not need to go and read it first unless you wish to.)
The Gospel this week follows not long after Jesus and Peter walk on water. Jesus and his disciples have travelled to a region where many of the people are gentiles, meaning they are not Jewish; they do not know the One True God. Jesus and his friends are Jewish and tend to associate only with other Jewish people. While they are in this region, Jesus has a very interesting encounter with a gentile woman.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
This passage from the Gospel is a little unsettling for many people. Jesus seems rude. First he seems to ignore the woman by not answering her; then, he speaks to the disciples within her hearing indicating that he only serves Jewish people; and finally, while she kneels at his feet he seems to call the woman a dog. Rude.
What is going on?
Scholars have different opinions on this passage. Perhaps Jesus is testing the woman, trying to see if she has true faith. People shout at Jesus all the time. Some of them are mocking him. Perhaps she isn't drawn to the One True God, but shouts for help to everyone passing by. So by first ignoring her, Jesus may be waiting to see if she will continue to ask for help. She does. She continues to ask for help even while he says he is sent,
only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel
and while he compares her and her people to animals, lesser than the Jewish people, the children of God. She keeps asking. She never takes her eyes off Jesus. She proves her faith.
Another possibility, the scholars say, is that Jesus wants to demonstrate to the disciples what true faith looks like. Remember, Peter--poor Peter!--had his own faith tested as he tried to walk on the water to Jesus. He was distracted by fear and took his eyes off Jesus. Perhaps Jesus wants the disciples to see that faith means keeping your eyes on him regardless of hardship, despite ridicule.
Both of these explanations give us things to think about. We learn what true faith looks like; we learn how to persist in our prayer. And if either or both of these explanations satisfy you, it is enough. You can stop reading here :)
For me, neither explanation of Jesus' actions is completely satisfying. The second explanation--that he is demonstrating what faith looks like to the disciples--seems a little cruel. Would Jesus ignore a woman simply to prove a point? Would Jesus feel the need to rub it in that Peter had not demonstrated unwavering faith? Jesus has already said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” It just doesn't seem right to me. (But I am not a biblical scholar. I am just telling you where my faith takes me.)
The first explanation--that he is testing the woman's faith--doesn't sit right with me either, because that would mean that Jesus says something misleading or untrue on purpose. Remember, he says,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
The woman is not of the house of Israel because she is a gentile, but Jesus helps her. So either he believes that the house of Israel includes the gentiles, which is misleading--no one else thinks that--or Jesus is lying when he says this. I can't think that either of these things is true.
So what else could be going on?
We know that Jesus is fully human and at the same time fully God. We like to think that because he is fully God, he knows everything that is going on all the time. It makes us feel secure to think that Jesus is always sure of everything. But I wonder. Jesus is also fully human. Part of being human is to learn, right? All of us are learning all the time. Is it possible that we are seeing Jesus learning something here?
Jesus has grown up in a Jewish household. He has studied the scriptures. He has come to understand that he is the Messiah, the One that God has sent to bring back the lost sheep of Israel. He knows this to be true. And it is true.
We also know that Jesus opens the covenant to all people, Jewish and gentile. He offers his Risen Life to each and to all, and we are grateful because none of us were born Jewish. In our baptism we receive the promise of eternal life. We are the gentile people who have come to know the One True God. We are so grateful.
At some point Jesus has to come to understand that this is his mission, to bring all people into the sheepfold of God the Father. Could it be happening here?
Jesus' heart could be breaking for this gentile woman who wants him to heal her daughter, but he does not want to get distracted from his mission to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Perhaps he knows that for healing to happen there has to be true faith, and he does not think that this faith can be found in a gentile woman.
But then she surprises him.
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The children of Israel--the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--these are the people he knows he must save. But she replies firmly,
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Who is the master? Who is the master of the universe, Creator of all things? She knows. She understands that she is not considered as worthy as the Jewish people, but she knows that the One True God is master. And she recognizes the master in Jesus.
And Jesus is blown away. His mind is suddenly opened to new roads. His mission has suddenly broadened to include all people, just as it was foretold to Abraham:
“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3b)
And the woman's daughter is healed instantly.
If Jesus can be surprised by the faith of a gentile woman, what can we learn from this? We can learn to fix our eyes on the one who saves us and, maybe not surprise him with our faith, but delight him with it. But can we also learn not to judge others, but to wait for another person's faith to suddenly appear and surprise us? What new roads will then open up for us? What miracles will then happen?
P.S. This is not the only time when we can see that possibly Jesus is learning his mission from a woman. There is another very significant moment when Jesus does not think it is his role or time to act, but a woman shows him otherwise, and again a miracle occurs. Can you think of when this might be?