21 After going out from there, Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” 23 But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” 24 So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!” 26 “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
SERMON The Canaanite Woman – Confidence in Faith
There was a pastor’s group that I was required to attend as part of my ordination process. On our Fall retreat we were given ministry scenarios that we had to role play. JongMin Martin Lee had the misfortune of being cast as the volunteer at a community free clinic while I was cast as a single mom with a very sick child who needed medicine. We didn’t know each other very well yet, but we each had kids. That was the Fall Jessika entered Kindergarten which means Tali was three. In the role play Martin had to tell me that the clinic couldn’t help me; he was supposed to send me away. I went into full mother bear mode. I’m still not as assertive in general as I was in that role play. Don’t tell me you can’t help my child. Martin survived, and I think our friendship was forged at lunch after that experience. We sat at the same table and got to know each other as real people and as parents.
I can’t help but remember that experience when I read today’s gospel story. I get that woman’s desperation and assertive insistence. My child is sick, tormented by a demon. I’ve heard your reputation. I know you can help; you can heal her, and I’m not giving up until you do! That’s the mind set she brought to the table.
There are so many things going on in this short story, but let’s start with location. If you look at a map of the Middle East in Jesus’ time, you have Judah down here. You might recognize stories from cities in Judah – Bethlehem, Bethany, Jerusalem. North of Judah or Judea is Samaria, those shirt tail cousins the Jews don’t like to claim. We’ll get to the Samaritan Woman at the Well in a few weeks. North of there you have Galilee, Jesus’ home turf with more cities you might recognize from Bible stories – Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum. Along the western border of Galilee and extending further to the north, hugging the shores of the Mediterranean is Phoenicia including the cities of Tyre and Sidon, north of Galilee, and it is in this territory that our story takes place. Today these cities are in Lebanon, just south of Syria. Back in Joshua’s time, this whole larger territory was called Canaan.
The reason for attempting to give you a mental picture of the area is that this woman is referred to by more than one regional name. I know her as the Syro-Phoenician woman, but every translation I happened to look at called her the Canaanite woman. Sadly, we don’t know her actual name. It doesn’t come up in the conversation. What is made clear, and is pertinent to the story, is that she was a foreigner.
Now, Jesus had taken his disciples north, out of their usual area of ministry. Most of them came from Galilee, and much of the early ministry took place there. But Jesus has pulled them out of their comfort zone and headed north into foreign lands. The people of Phoenician were not generally Jews. There was a peculiar set of prejudices in those days. Even Jews from Galilee looked down on Samaritans and Gentiles referring to non-Jews. Samaritans disagreed with some worship practices of other Jews. Jews from Judea looked down their noses on everybody: Samaritans, Galileans, and of course Gentiles. As Jesus takes the disciples north, he is extending the borders of his ministry and perhaps trying to stretch the narrow minds of his disciples. They are in foreign territory, but they took their prejudices with them.
A local woman approaches them. She is distraught and seeking assistance. She politely and respectfully states her needs, for her daughter to be released from whatever has taken over the child’s life. The disciples’ first reaction is to send her away. She’s crying after us, it’s annoying. Send her away. It’s disappointing that this is their MO. When parents brought their children to Jesus for a blessing, the disciples tried to send them away, but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mark 10) When the crowds followed to listen to Jesus teach, the disciples wanted to send them away, so they could eat. Jesus said, “You feed them.” (Luke 9) So as we look at the conversation, I want you to keep in mind that when the disciples didn’t want to be bothered with the people who came, Jesus usually responded in the opposite manner, and the disciples had to deal with being wrong.
If you take a light reading of this story, that doesn’t seem to be the case. When the woman asks for help, Jesus basically says, “I only came to help the people from my own nation.” But she bowed down and implored him with words of respect and reverence, “Lord, help me.” Bowing is a humble act of deference in any culture, and she has now twice acknowledged Jesus as Lord. Jesus responds with a jibe, and I can picture the disciples smiling and nodding with something of a sneer on their faces. Hah! See! Even Jesus puts this foreigner in her place. The words that sound so harsh to us are these. “It’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” We can’t imagine Jesus saying such a thing. He just called this poor distressed woman a dog using an ethnic slur that any other Jew used for Gentiles. Or did he?
Two things are going on here. First, is Jesus reeling his disciples into a trap to teach them something about their own inappropriate attitudes by starting out echoing exactly what was going through their minds? I think he was setting them up to learn a hard lesson that they still hadn’t gotten. Plenty of people looked down on the disciples for a variety of reasons: where they came from, their lack of education, their blue-collar jobs or worse yet that tax collector. But for all of that the disciples were looking down on others, particularly a foreigner in this instance and a needy one at that. I think Jesus was in teaching mode as usual.
But the other thing we would completely miss in any English translation if we didn’t have scholars explaining the nuances of biblical languages is this. The usual ethnic slur for Gentiles was a strong word meaning something like a wild dog, a scavenger. Jesus modified it by using a warmer diminutive term that refers to a household pet, a puppy. It’s not the same reaction at all. I don’t know if the disciples caught that distinction right away or not, but I think the woman did.
She didn’t miss a beat. She played right into the skit Jesus set up with her response, “Yes, but even dogs eat the crumbs from the Master’s table.” She is wittily saying, I don’t need to be treated like your countrymen. I just need this one thing. I need you to heal my daughter. I know you can do that. I’m begging you to do that. Do me this one favor, and I’ll get out of your way, but please, just heal my daughter. Again, that’s the mind set she brought to this conversation.
Jesus liked her answer. I think it made him grin, maybe even an appreciative laugh. He liked her persistence. She’s like the widow in the story Jesus told who kept banging on the judge’s door until he gave her justice. This woman was not giving up until her daughter was healed. Jesus also recognized that this persistence was accompanied by genuine faith. This woman may not be a Jew, but she had no doubt about who Jesus was and what Jesus was capable of doing. She believed in him and trusted him in a way that many Jews did not. Jesus commended her for her faith and sent her home to a daughter who was already healed.
I wonder what the conversation was like the rest of that day with the disciples. I bet some heads were hanging. Maybe some were shaking. I wonder how long it took them to get it. The sad truth is many even in our own day still don’t get it. Jesus came for everyone, and Jesus didn’t put anyone down.
I wonder what the celebration was like when the woman got home. I can picture her telling her daughter about this wonderful teacher. Maybe she had fun sharing the conversation and the clever way she and the teacher had communicated. I know she went home with her head held higher, freed from the weight of worry and amazed that a Jewish man had listened to her and helped her.
I wonder what went through Jesus’ mind. I think a smile when he thought of the woman and her daughter. I think a sorrow that his disciples still didn’t understand and a determination to keep confronting them with their own inappropriate attitudes. Soon enough they would need to keep these teachings going, but they had to understand and live it themselves first.
We aren’t told the rest of the story. We just know the healing happened. We don’t get to sit in on the debriefing with the disciples. We don’t even know if one took place.
One teaching/coaching technique is to provide the lesson and let the students take away from it what they can, working out what it means in their own lives for themselves. Jesus may have done that with the disciples. That’s how my coach works with me. Mostly he listens to my stories, to my conclusions, then he may share just a snipet of his own experience or one brief outside observation or ask me one deep question, and then he lets me sit with it and work it through for myself.
There are lots of conclusions and lessons I could draw out from this story for you, but today I’m not going to do that. I want you to take it home, mull it over, talk with each other about the things that come to mind, maybe even come to the Adult Class today to hear a bit more and then share your thoughts, learn from each other. After all of that I hope you will consider what God is asking of you. What do you take away from this story that can change your life, your attitude, your behavior? That may depend on who you are in the story right now: whether you are the one who is hurting and coming to Jesus for help, whether you are the one sitting back holding perspectives that may need to change, whether you are the one hoping to help others and teach others a better way. Talk it over with God, and hear what God has for you today.