Matthew 15:21-28, the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, is one of the more troubling passages of the Bible for me:
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.
It wouldn’t surprise me if it was merely the disciples who responded to this woman without hospitality. These warm friends of Jesus were so often mistaken when it came to bringing others into the fold. But Jesus’ own words (insults!) and actions here seem very out of step with much of the rest of Jesus’ approach towards those on the margins. In preparing for this reflection, I really felt compelled to try and listen to the forgotten voice of this courageous and tenacious woman, based on what is described in the text. Unfortunately, her own words and experience are unfortunately left up to our guesswork at this point, so what follows is my own guess as to what this might have looked like…
I went to the Lord Jesus, seeking his salvation, and I heard no response. I called out to the Lord, but He did not answer me. I cried out, and cried out, and the Lord did not bless me. Ignored – so I cried out yet again.
I kept right on agitating. The disciples told me to be quiet. Like gatekeepers, they denied my entry. The Lord’s own followers dismissed me, told me I wasn’t worthy. I was indigenous – foreign to them, different blood, different skin, different culture, different rules – different body parts. They tried to silence me, but still I cried out yet again. Ignored, rejected – I kept right on agitating.
The disciples grew desperate for me to leave. They could bear my agitating no more. They begged Jesus to make me depart, but he told them that was not his responsibility: he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – not Canaan.
But I kept right on agitating. I went to Him myself! “Lord, help me!” So much did I seek his blessing that I ignored even that I am a woman. I rejected the confining conventions that would keep me in my place. Ignored, rejected – I cried out yet again.
And Jesus said, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (The Word of the Lord, thanks be to God…?) The children – Israel – to receive all the blessings for themselves – lost sheep. My daughter and I? Dogs. Canaan. Unwelcome. Unworthy. God’s grace would be wasted on people like me, so better that it be withheld from we unclean indigenous women. Ignored, rejected, insulted – still I cried out.
I kept right on agitating. Like Jacob, who wrestled with God and refused to let go without receiving his blessing – I would wrestle with the Son of God until I received His blessing. And I bested the Lord using His own line of reason: “…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” My duty to my daughter has made sharp my wit – and my tongue. The Lord will provide, or if not, she is lost. My audacity – and my pride – are nothing compared to my fear – and my faith. Ignored, rejected, insulted, insistent – I cried out to the Lord.
And Jesus could no longer resist: “O woman, great is your faith! Great is your faith!” My faith! Be it done for me as I desire, thus says the Lord. We would be blessed, my daughter would be healed, the crumbs from the table of salvation – thrown not to the dogs, but to us. My cries – answered with grace – not freely given, but argued, pleaded and fought for. Victory in my courage, tenacity, and above all – my great faith that I, too, am worthy.
I have faith that the grace of Jesus is for me too, no matter how society will hear me, or if the church is willing to validate me, or if the world – and even the Lord – suggests that I am an unworthy dog, I have faith. Faith that His salvation extends beyond societal boundaries: beyond human differences, the many ways we divide ourselves, beyond the way we’ve always done it, even beyond what I think might be God’s own intentions – if my faith proves strong enough, I can bend the ear of the Lord. Not even God will be able to refuse me, because of my faith. When I am ignored, rejected, insulted, let me be insistent until I am redeemed – by God’s grace, thanks to my persistent faith.