By the Rev. Darren Miner
If you have been watching the news reports of late, you will have heard about racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri; ethnic warfare in Gaza; and ethnic cleansing in Iraq. Sensitized to racial and ethnic tensions in the world today, we find that today’s Gospel reading grates on our ears. There is a temptation for preachers to gloss over the story, since Jesus’ behavior is an embarrassment. But it would be foolish to do so, for, believe it or not, this story is a turning point in the course of the history of salvation!
Jesus heads to Gentile territory, to the coast of what today is Lebanon. According to Saint Mark’s account, Jesus intends to hide out there and stay out of the public eye. He certainly does not intend to make himself known by public healings.
But Jesus’ intentions are thwarted when he is confronted by a woman with a sick daughter. The woman is identified by Matthew as a Canaanite. Now this identification is unusual. For the term “Canaanite” was archaic. It would be like referring to an Irishman as a “Hibernian.” In Saint Mark’s version of the story, she is called a “Syrophoenician,” the more usual term. So why does Saint Matthew used the old-fashioned word “Canaanite”? Well, the answer is that he wants to bring to mind the ancestral hatred between the Israelites and the Canaanites. For Matthew, the point is not just that she is a pagan, but that she is the enemy! (Imagine, if you will, a Jewish rabbi today confronted by a Palestinian woman in Gaza.)
Despite the historical enmity between her people and the Jews and despite the cultural norms that forbade a woman from addressing a strange man, this desperate woman seeks out the help of this foreign healer. Somehow, she has come to know about him and about the fact that he is reputed to be the Messiah of the Jews; it is for that reason that she uses the messianic term of address “Son of David.” She begs Jesus to help her sick daughter. But Jesus’s initial response is stony silence.
Yet the woman persists, and her persistence is such an annoyance that the disciples ask Jesus to send her packing. He tries to convince her to give up and leave by explaining that his healing mission is reserved for the children of Israel—and only the children of Israel. Still, the woman persists. She proceeds to prostrate herself at Jesus’ feet, crying, “Lord, help me!” Seemingly unmoved, Jesus responds, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” The upshot of Jesus’ graphic metaphor is that his ministry (and God’s grace!) are not intended for Gentile dogs. In particular, Jesus is flatly refusing to heal the “little dog” who happens to be this woman’s sick daughter!