The Canaanite Woman
We have a dramatic scene in today’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples are walking along and a hysterical woman comes up to them 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 and they try to persuade Jesus to get rid of her. The woman does not fit into the plans for the day.
The problem is not with the woman, it is with Jesus. It is his job to save Israel; he is a Jew with a mission to his fellow Jews. Jesus reminds the woman that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. Here is where the tension lies, where there is a standoff of the story. There are two people on either sides of an issue but 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 particularity and appeals to universality. She is saying to forget the boundaries for a moment. “I have a daughter and she has a deformed body and a dark mind. She will never run and play with other children and she is hurting so badly. Can’t you for once forget our label?”
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. As St. Luke tells us, Jesus grew in wisdom, age and grace. He learned to see his mission wider than what he first thought.
It is 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? What fired her passion? It was her daughter of course. She is consumed by her love, by her mission. She is a mother and her mission is her daughter. Her demon-filled daughter is going to die or endure a living death. 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 her persistent faith in his power to heal the child? Jesus cannot deny her request which 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 outsiders like the Canaanite woman and the Roman Centurion. He also encounters it in religious outcasts within Israel….Lepers, sinners and the poor who neither know nor keep the law.
Matthew’s gospel was written for primarily Jewish converts who were facing the rapid expansion of the 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 because the people in Heaven with you will include Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and many, many more. No one is outside of God’s grace. Our own place at God’s table may put us next to someone we never thought would be as cherished by God as we ourselves want to be.
So what about the woman? We never hear of her again. We do not even know her name. I wonder….I wonder if with joyful tears she stood up…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.