by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Lord”, the Canaanite woman said, “help me.” Jesus replied: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.” She retorted: “Ah yes, Sir; but even house-dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”  Matthew 15: 21-28

A relatively simple way for anyone of us to begin engaging with today’s gospel-reading is to ask ourselves the question: “With which of the two main characters in the story do I identify? Is it with Jesus or with the Canaanite woman or with both?” Whichever answer (s) we give ourselves will then require us to invest some time in reflection.
But first, it’s important that we note that what led into today’s gospel reading was an account from Matthew of a spat that Jesus had just had with a group of Pharisees over purity laws. Jesus, fresh from that spat, in which he had called his critics hypocrites because of their pettiness and intransigence relating to purity laws was seemingly preoccupied with what it was that motivated religious leaders to be intent on setting boundaries as a way of controlling peoples’ lives. While some might think that Jesus was using the pleas of a screaming woman demanding attention for her daughter as a way of teaching his disciples that working with him might involve them in questioning and crossing traditional boundaries, that is no justification for anyone, least of all Jesus, to engage in verbal and emotional abuse of a woman in order to teach any kind of a lesson to anyone.

So, before exploring just who it is in this story with whom we might identify, we might turn our attention to pondering why it was that Matthew included in his Gospel a story that seems to present Jesus in an unfavourable light. After criticising the Pharisees and Scribes for their hypocrisy and for big-noting themselves as boundary setters, Jesus gathered his disciples and headed for the region of Tyre and Sidon, territory that was synonymous with “defilement” for it was inhabited by Canaanites, people who had no affiliation with Israel’s God and who were regarded as untouchable. They had been dispossessed of their land when Israel overran them and were subsequently labelled by Jews as detestable and unclean. Jesus and his disciples chose a path that would inevitably bring then into confrontation with one or more Canaanites and put them at risk of being defiled.

Providentially, they were confronted by a screeching woman who must have heard about Jesus and who knew that she, too, was crossing cultural boundaries in approaching him. She was intent only on getting help for her daughter, and she was certainly not going to take “no” for an answer. Regrettably, Jesus’ preoccupation with the residue of the spat he had left behind had kept him focussed on thinking that his vocation as teacher and preacher was to work at bringing a change of mind and heart to his own people, including their religious leaders, with some of whom he had just tangled. While we can conclude, from the way in which he had dealt with those leaders, that Jesus would have been an asset to any debating team, he was no match for this Canaanite mother. The hullaballoo she made, and the insistence of her pleas stopped Jesus from ignoring her. So, he resorted to insult, in an attempt to be rid of her. He stressed the exclusiveness of his mission to Israel by declaring: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”. When she, in response, came and knelt at his feet, pleading: “Lord, help me!”, he retorted: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

Equal to the challenge, she returned fire with dignity and style, reminding Jesus that dogs would never pass over a chance of getting scraps. My limited knowledge of biblical Greek tells me that Jesus used the word kunariois (little doggies) instead of the shorter, harsher sounding word for dogs. The Canaanite woman echoed his words when she responded sensitively with: “But even the little doggies get the little crumbies that fall from the master’s table.” That was the ace that won the game. Effectively, she had trumped him by stating that the doggies would be more appreciative of the food Jesus had to offer than his own people who had already begun to reject it. She succeeded in convincing him that what he had to offer was more than enough for everyone willing to plead for it. This woman had dared to cross the entrenched boundaries of race and religion, even addressing Jesus as “Lord” and “Son of David” (titles the Jewish religious leaders avoided) and she expressed a level of trust and belief in Jesus that won his public admiration: “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”
This story is testimony that God’s love, mercy and forgiveness are for all peoples, exactly as Isaiah had asserted in today’s first reading: “Foreigners who have attached themselves to God, to serve God and to love God’s name and be God’s servants. – these I will bring to my holy mountain I will make them joyful in my house of prayer…which will be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56: 6-7).

Above all else, this story is an affirmation of the humanity of Jesus. We Christians have little difficulty in believing that Jesus was divine. That comes from the almost endless accounts of the miracles he worked and the people he healed. We are slower to accept that he was fully human, experiencing the full range of feelings, emotions, desires, frustrations and temptations that we experience. Psychology was not heard of in his lifetime. The Gospel writers did not have the skills to describe his emotional growth and development, though they did give accounts of his getting angry and fed-up with petty-minded, religious leaders, money-changers and vendors in the Temple and those who exploited the poor and needy. Today’s gospel-reading points to the fact that there were times in his life when, to preserve his balance and integrity, he had to change his mind. Change is integral to human growth and development and Jesus was not exempt from change, growth and development. The Canaanite woman who challenged him through her insistence, perseverance, sharp- wittedness and sense of humour taught him something about questioning boundaries. Moreover, the story of her encounter with him informs us that, while as a mature adherent of the Jewish faith he knew he had a serious duty to care for orphans, widows and foreigners, circumstances, the vagaries of daily life and having to deal with intolerant people can distract flesh and blood human beings from their responsibilities. Jesus was no exception. He was fully human. The Gospels give us two examples of his changing his mind. – one was at the wedding celebration in Cana and the other was in hostile territory in Phoenicia. Those who prompted the change were both women!
All this reminds us that God works through all kinds of people and events to shake us out of the boundaries we can create for ourselves and the boundaries and restraints that others may want to put on us. Change of mind and heart will be a ceaseless challenge for all of us this side of the grave. We can still ask ourselves “With which character in today’s gospel-reading do I identify?”  And let’s not forget a 2016 reminder from Pope Francis: “A person who thinks only about building walls (boundaries?) and not building bridges is not Christian.” (Press Conference, Flight from Mexico to Rome, Feb. 18, 2016)