The woman in our gospel passage was desperate. She was excluded from Jewish society and her own community on three grounds.
Firstly she was a Canaanite. Canaanites were the people Joshua was supposed to defeat in his conquest of the land. They were considered pagan, immoral, not worthy of the covenant blessings promised to Israel.
The “Black lives matter” movement reminds us how easily we stereotype and profile racially. It often starts at school where children divide themselves according to colour or religion to maintain their sense of identity.
We have heard recently of how destructive the police stop and search routines have been to a black MP, an Olympic athlete and a musician.
Racial profiling often mistakenly leads police to expect to find drugs or weapons when they spot black men driving expensive cars with sometimes lethal results.
Secondly the woman was excluded because she was a woman. Though some women today have far more power and choice in their lives than the women of Jesus’ day, many still suffer at the hands of men and are silenced. This week we heard about the rise in domestic violence towards pregnant women during lockdown and about honour based murders within the Asian community.
Thirdly, the woman said she had a demon possessed daughter
We do not know whether the girl suffered from, mental illness, a learning disability, a physical illness or whether she was literally demon possessed. It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t cast out any demons out of the girl. He heals her.
My husband and I know a little about what it feels like to be excluded because of a child whose behaviour is out of control. Our daughter has two autistic children. Consequently, when they come to stay we have always avoided parks or seaside resorts where there will be lots of other people.
We do not bring the children to church or take them to family parties.
The oldest one persists in throwing himself in the road. He can be a danger to himself and others. He squeals, bangs, and throws his arms in the air. Being with him is demanding and embarrassing.
Last week when he was eating sand on the beach and my daughter was feeling dreadful, another family came to the beach with their autistic daughter who was in the same class at school. They understood. At last my daughter was able to talk to someone who understood what she was going through.
Everyone in the account from Matthew, including us, the reader is made to feel uncomfortable.
Jesus ignores a woman in pain, speaks over her in derogatory terms, and seems to take a racist attitude. We would rather Jesus was warm and loving; ready to show compassion and mercy.
We are also confronted by disciples lacking in compassion; disciples who are racist, thinking they are better than everyone else. They are annoyed by the presence of someone outside their group.
Jesus had gone away to the district of Tyre and Sidon, a non-Jewish, Gentile region.
The disciples were out of their comfort zone: this was Bandit country, and all their safety nets as Jews were removed. They were amongst Gentiles with whom they had little in common. They probably felt nervous at being in such strange surroundings.
Jesus and his disciples were not going to get the rest they wanted because the Canaanite woman came out and started shouting causing the levels of discomfort rise more.
No self-respecting woman would talk to a man the way she was talking to Jesus, let alone a Gentile woman talking first to a Jewish man before being spoken to.
“Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David,” she shouts, “my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
She doesn’t cry out for healing or justice, just mercy, acknowledging Jesus as her superior and possibly as Messiah and Jewish King.
How does Jesus respond? He totally ignores her.
How could Jesus appear so indifferent to the genuine anguish of another human being?
The disciples displayed annoyance thinking this was mirroring Jesus’ own emotions. They urged Jesus, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us’.” They didn’t want anything to do with this woman outsider.
Jesus’ reply doesn’t help. He says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.
He seems that to be agreeing with the disciples. If he had agreed with their racist, exclusive position, he would have sent the woman away. Instead, he starts begins a dialogue that will eventually lead to spiritual growth for both the disciples and the woman.
The woman prayerfully kneels before Jesus and asks again ‘Lord, help me’.” She does what we are all asked to do. She makes her request, simply directly, in humility, trusting Jesus to respond. Why doesn’t he immediately give her what she needs?
Instead he seems to humiliate her further in front of his friends. He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’.”
How cruel to suggest that she is somehow less than human, no better than a dog searching for scraps from the table!
But the woman is feisty and persistent. She throws Jesus’ words back in his face, Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’.” Surely there is enough to go round?
This story, coming soon after Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 and almost immediately before Jesus’ feeding of the 4000 ,gives a clear message about the abundance of God transcending all boundaries.
Isaiah shows us God’s salvation and deliverance was always meant for everyone.
Jesus’ responds, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!”
He commends her for her faith in front of his disapproving friends and her daughter is healed
Jesus enlarges the boundaries of his mission to encompass the outsider.
This challenges us. We want new people in church, we want others to become Christians and we will be friendly and welcome them. But ultimately, we want them to become one of us and play by our rules. People are expected to conform to belong.
In this story, Jesus reaches out and meets the woman where she is.
Rather than expecting others to join us on our terms, we need to be prepared to learn from others and enlarge our vision by engaging with others who are different from ourselves.
When we do so, we will be stretched. We will grow in faith, and become more Christ-like.
A Christ-like Church gets rid of the idea of ‘Us and Them’, and chooses to learn from others with different ideas so that we can grow together as the people of God, with all our differences, with all our different expectations of God and Church.
May we reach across boundaries in ways that change and enlarge us, engaging with those who are culturally different? May we seek to embrace and learn from those who have been excluded by disability, mental illness, homelessness, unemployment or religion? May we welcome those trapped by evil and in sinful lifestyles?
Jesus did. He calls us to do likewise.
Lord of heaven and earth,
as Jesus taught his disciples to be persistent in prayer,
give us patience and courage never to lose hope,
but always to bring our prayers before you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen