My reflection this fortnight is based on an event in Jesus’ life (Matthew 15: 21–28), when he has a disagreement with someone and appears to lose! He seems to change his mind, because of something someone says. It’s the only place in the Gospel that this happens and it is remarkable! It is a pivotal moment in his ministry, when he realises, I think, that God might be telling him something through someone else.
Jesus journeys to gentile territory: the non-Jewish part of the country. He’s tired of the Jewish religious authorities questioning his teaching. He’s possibly tired of the disciples not understanding his teaching. In today’s reading, he heads off to the gentile part of the country, perhaps to have a bit of a break, and possibly in the hope that no one will recognise him.
However, he is recognised by a gentile woman, a Canaanite with a sick child, who finds out where he is staying and comes to see him. The phrase “my daughter is tormented by a demon” could mean any number of things. Often in ancient times if someone had an illness which was not understood, they would be characterised as having an unclean spirit or a demon.
So, she comes to Jesus and begs him to heal her daughter. And Jesus refuses! It’s the only time that he is recorded as saying “no” to healing someone. It is quite strange. Why would Jesus say no? We have a clue in the woman’s identity. She was a Canaanite, a gentile (not Jewish), and Jewish men, like Jesus, were absolutely forbidden even to talk gentile women.
One Bible commentator I’ve been reading has a theory about Jesus’ initial refusal to answer the Canaanite woman. He thinks that Jesus knew his reputation was on the line with the Jewish authorities. Not only is he exhausted by the demands of the crowds, and not only is he frustrated with his disciples not understanding his message, but he’s also worried that his message is failing to reach the Jewish authorities. If he agrees to heal a gentile woman’s daughter, the authorities will reject him altogether. Why? Because in the ancient world Jews were not supposed to have anything meaningful to do with non-Jews, especially something like praying with them for healing, which is what Jesus would be doing.
So, Jesus rejects her request. He rejects her request nicely. Unfortunately, most translations make his rejection of her come across as very harsh. Most translations say something like: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”. Jews used to refer to gentiles as dogs, so this sounds incredibly insulting. But, in fact, the original Greek actually says “house dogs” or “puppies”. Thus, Jesus’ response is gentler in the original Greek than our translation suggests. The same commentator I’ve been reading says that it’s not so much a rebuke of the woman, as a sad, little joke – a playful attempt to send her away. Nonetheless, it is a rejection of her request.
She has the best comeback ever! There’s no hysterical yelling or losing it, which you might perhaps expect given that her daughter is so unwell. Rather, she just comes back with a witty response: “Sir, even the house dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”.
Not only is this a play on Jesus’ comment, but in gentile tradition (as opposed to the Jewish tradition of the time) the house dogs were indeed allowed in the dining room. Thus the woman seems to be suggesting that the gentiles deserve to be in the same room as God’s chosen people.
It is the only time Jesus is bested in an argument. It’s actually remarkable that Matthew kept this event in his Gospel, because it shows Jesus in a less than perfect light, but here it is! Jesus’ humanity is on display.
The Canaanite woman changes Jesus’ mind. She actually appears to change the course of his ministry altogether. As a result, he heals her daughter. Then, in the paragraph following this one, he heals many people and then feeds 4000 people. Unlike the feeding of the 5000, this time they’re non-Jews. It’s as if he’s saying, “The religious authorities hate me anyway, I might as well spread the Gospel message to everyone, Jews and gentiles alike”.
This is the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. It’s a pivotal point. I think this is the moment that Jesus truly accepts that his message (that God’s love and forgiveness is for everyone) has to be acted upon. This is the moment that he realises it’s either all or nothing. “Either I pursue this love business totally and without reservation, or I might as well give up now.”
Sometimes you just have to commit to what’s right and go for it. In my case, I had to answer the question, “Should I actually commit to what I sense God is calling me to do and become a priest?” That’s not everyone’s specific vocation, but each of us does have a vocation, it’s a decision really: to commit to loving other people as God loves us.
Jesus decides to commit to spreading God’s love to everyone, not just his Jewish compatriots, and it’s as a result of his interaction with the woman in today’s reading. It’s a pity we don’t know her name, because she would surely be one of the saints.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall