We have a dramatic scene in today’s Gospel. Jesus and His disciples are walking along and a woman comes up to them, in hysterics. She is crying with the intensity of a mother whose child needs help. She is not a Jew, but she must have heard of this Wonder Worker who cures people. She does not ask for help, she shouts it. She annoys the disciples, who try to persuade Jesus to get rid of her.
She does not fit in the day’s plans. But the problem is not with the woman, it is with Jesus. His job is to save Israel. He is a Jew with a mission to His fellow Jews. So, He reminds her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” Here lies the tension, the standoff of the story. Here are two people on either side of an issue. Note what she does: she tries a second time and she drops the “Son of David” and simply says “Lord” or “Sir, help me.”
In other words, she drops His individuality and appeals to His universality. She is saying to forget the boundaries for a moment: “I have a daughter. She has a deformed body and a dark mind. She will never run and play with other children; she is hurting so badly. Can’t you, for once, forget our labels?” Jesus knows she is right. He may be a Jew but He is also Lord. Finally, He says, “Great is your faith” and the daughter lived.
And as St. Luke tells us, Jesus grew in wisdom, age and grace and learned to see His mission wider than what He first thought. A dramatic and colorful story, but we are not quite through. Let’s go back to the woman: the loud-mouthed, persistent woman. What drove her so? What made her cross boundaries? It was her daughter, of course. She is consumed by love, by her mission. She is a mother. Her mission is her daughter.
Her daughter is going to die, or endure a living death. And if this Jewish Messiah can help them, then, by God, He is going to. Little things like nationality and ethnic rivalry are not going to stand in her way. What convinces Jesus that the Spirit is at work in the Canaanite woman? Is it her deep love of her daughter and persistent faith in His power to heal the child? Jesus cannot deny her request. Here is clear proof that the Spirit is expanding His mission, to the Gentile world.
All through the Gospels we see that Jesus encounters deep faith and love in religious outcasts within Israel, lepers and sinners. And the poor who neither know nor keep the law.
Matthew’s Gospel was written for primarily Jewish converts. They were facing the rapid expansion of Jesus’ movement into Gentile areas. They had to think outside the box and stretch their sense of special privilege, and realize that all are welcome within the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus.
You may as well get used to it now. The people in Heaven with you will include Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and many more. No one is outside of God’s grace. Our own place at God’s table may put us next to someone who we never thought would be as cherished by God as we ourselves want to be. And what about the woman? We never hear of her again. We do not even know her name.
I wonder if with joyful tears she stood up and bowed to Jesus in thanks. And He, with a knowing smile, bowed to her: the woman who changed the mind of Jesus.