Image: Cross at Trapper’s Lake Spirituality Centre
Jeremiah 31.1-7 | Canticle Jeremiah 31 | Matthew 15.21-28
I find today’s gospel passage to be one of the most puzzling encounters between Jesus and someone who comes to him seeking help.
Consider the story of the feeding of the five thousand people which was our gospel reading for this past Sunday. In that passage we hear that the disciples wanted to send the hungry crowd away so that the people could go and find food for themselves. Jesus vetoed that idea and instead said to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” In another passage from the gospel of Matthew we hear about parents bring their little children in order that Jesus could bless them. The disciples try to spare Jesus by, again, sending the families away, but again Jesus protests and says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs”.
Our gospel today shows a different side of Jesus. As the Canaanite woman approaches him, he is completely aloof, despite her pleas he does not answer her at all. In this case it is the disciples who protest that Jesus should do something, not because they were righteous but because they were frustrated that the woman kept calling out and would not leave them alone.
I see two theories for Jesus’ perplexing reactions.
First, it is possible that Jesus was planning on helping the woman in her distress all along, but wanted her first to find the strength within herself to overcome his feigned apathy, and plead her case before God. This strikes me as more than a bit paternalistic, like a parent at the grocery story listening to their youngster whine about getting their favorite cereal. Eventually they will cave in, but not until they let their child know who is in charge.
The second option, which I find more appealing, is that Jesus really had no intention of helping this woman. She was a Gentile and, at this point in his ministry, Jesus’ mission was to the people of Israel. His sharp rebuke makes it clear that his powers to heal were intended to be, “the children’s food and not thrown to the dogs”. I find this appealing not because of Jesus’ attitude per se, but because in that interaction we see a very human side of Jesus which can teach us a great deal about our own missionary endeavours.
Jesus did not know everything, but he was open to learning. The woman who came to him was a stranger, a gentile and a woman. Three strikes against her already in the culture of Jesus’ time. Yet something about her emboldened response to Jesus, “Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”, triggered his empathy and he realized that the view of his mission was about to widen. The faith on display, inspired by the love for her daughter, showed Jesus that the love of the Father could not be contained by one group of people but was meant for all of God’s children.
As we minister to others it is important that we learn to take off our own blinders so that we can see those on the margins that we often overlook. Each and every person that we encounter has a story that needs to be heard and is deserving of our attention and love.