A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” (Matthew 15:22–28)
I struggle to understand why Jesus took so long to heal the poor woman’s daughter, and why he may have employed the Jewish derogatory term of “dogs” to describe the Gentiles. But as theologian Michael Green comments in The Message of Matthew, we don’t know Jesus’ inflection or delivery of his words, for in the Greek, punctuation is inferred and not written. So Jesus could have been musing, asking the question if he was sent only to Israel. As Green says, “I believe this was a soliloquy of Jesus” (p. 172).
However we interpret it, we know that Jesus’ first mission is to save Israel. His actions here tell us, however, that he doesn’t limit his grace. As with the Roman centurion who sought healing for his servant, Jesus admires this woman’s faith and tenacity, and heals her daughter.
The early church would have been encouraged by this encounter, for it shows how amazed Jesus was by a Gentile’s faith. The story would have also served as a warning to those in Israel who were complacent in their privileged status. What Jesus yearns for, as we see here, is great faith.
Passages like this remind us that as much as we’d sometimes like to put Jesus into a neat and tidy box, we simply cannot. But we can follow the example of the Gentile woman, who was motivated by her maternal love and persevered in seeking healing for her daughter. And we can trust that God’s love and mercy is sufficient – whatever our ethnicity, race or tribe.
Prayer: Lord, thank you for the tenacity of this mother and your loving response. Help us to hold on to you, as you hold on to us. Amen.