I want to proclaim today Jesus’ full humanity! That he did not know everything! That he got angry at the wrong things sometimes! And that he made mistakes, perhaps really big mistakes! And I might be so bold as to suggest that we have the beginnings of a mistake in this passage.
Jesus travels outside of Israel to connect with the Jewish groups that live in Tyre. He may have healed some folks there or he was just known to do that, but either way, a woman approaches him to heal her daughter who is mentally ill. And he ignores her. She keeps at him, and he keeps ignoring her. Finally the disciples jump in and beg him to get rid of her because she was irritating them. Then he says, “I am only here for the children of Israel.”
Now persistence is something that Jesus has praised in other situations. In fact, he takes it as an indication of faith. And he has healed the servants and children of other Gentiles. So the fact that she was not Jewish or the fact that she is irritating isn’t the problem for Jesus.
I will say that many people have tried to excuse Jesus here. To say that he was secretly encouraging her to continue to ask. That he was just testing her to see how far she’d go. That he was speaking sarcastically. I can’t deny that possibility, but I don’t see anything like this in the text. Rather, I think the most important hint was early in the text– that she was Canaanite.
From the time that they are children, all Jewish people are taught about the evil nature of the Canaanites. That doesn’t mean that they all do evil things, but that it is in their nature to be evil and that it would be better that they never existed.
This is throughout the Torah and the Tanakh, the whole Hebrew scriptures. The story of the Canaanites begins with Noah. All of humanity is destroyed, only Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives have survived. Noah, perhaps by accident, perhaps not, got seriously drunk and fell naked in his tent. Ham, one of Noah’s sons, saw him naked and told his brothers. After this, Noah is furiously upset with Ham and curses Ham’s son, Canaan. But this seems like an extreme reaction. A little bit of reading between the lines, though, seems to indicate that Ham saw Noah naked because he was in the tent for another reason. Ham, it seems, wasn’t satisfied with his wife and so had incest with his mother, Noah’s wife. This is why Noah didn’t curse Ham, but Ham’s son, Canaan, the product of an adulterous, incestuous relationship.
Is the story true? That’s not the point. The point is that the Hebrew Scriptures sometimes talk about the incestuous ancestry of their most hated enemies, such as Moab and Ammon. It is a way to dismiss a whole nation or group of nations as unworthy to exist.
Later, when God tells the Israelites that he will clear out the Canaanites for them, over a long period of time. But Moses commands them to destroy the Canaanites utterly, to kill every man, woman and child, to kill everything that breathes in their nation. When Joshua failed to take them all out, then God revoked that command, saying that he would leave the Canaanites to test the Israelites.
The Canaanites were so hated that in later centuries, Jews who married Canaanites weren’t allowed to remain Jewish. They had to divorce their wives or they would no longer be counted among the Jewish people.
The Cannanites weren’t even powerful enough to be considered a true enemy of Israel, they are weak, despised and hated by all Jewish people, not counted to be important enough to exist. They were better off to be destroyed, and if not destroyed then enslaved and if not enslaved, then ignored.
Jesus is not the kind to destroy or enslave anyone. He recognizes everyone’s right to exist and to live in freedom. But he is, it seems, trying to ignore the existence of this Canaanite, despite her continuing, pitiful pleas. Jesus, on occasion, has no compassion for people who approach him, and this woman receives the worst treatment by him.
He tells her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
To call someone a “dog” I’m sure you know, is the worst thing you could call a person. It is the “n” word of the first century. It is the worst slur a Jewish person can give to a gentile. Mostly because every gentile understands the full insult behind that slur, while they may not understand the other common slur for gentiles, “pig.”
But rather than be offended and storm off, rather than meekly withdraw from the rebuke, this woman has a brilliant counter to his slur: “But even the dogs will eat from the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.”
She is saying, “Okay, I am a dog. I accept your slur. But there is no reason for you to refuse to heal my daughter. You should heal her, even if you think you have the right to insult me and my people.”
She is still persistent. She is still demanding. And she is humble. Not humble in a quiet way, but humble in accepting the low position that she does not deserve. No one deserves to be called a slur. Everyone should have a certain amount of respect accorded to those who have been made in God’s image. But she accepts what she did not deserve in order to gain a greater benefit for her daughter.
At this point, if Jesus had accepted the training he had received as a good Jew of the first century, he should have sent her away. He should have not had anything to do with her. Instead, I believe, that Jesus realizes that he has a conflict of principles.
He has alway said that those who have faith would be healed. Not faith as simple belief. Jesus commended faith that was brash, persistent, resourceful and demanding. He never required a person be of a certain nationality nor that they be polite. The very principles that God the Father and he determined insists that he heal this woman’s daughter. However, the prejudices of his society, the perhaps unthinking biases of his people demands that he reject her.
I think that Jesus had a recognition that he was mistaken. That he was siding with prejudice instead of compassion. That he was going along with the racism of his society instead of demanding a change for justice. I think that he was face to face with an assumption that he hadn’t considered before. That a woman demanded that he end his bias against her and her people right then and there.
And I think he did something that most people, almost all people, wouldn’t do.
I believe firmly that Jesus was tempted to do evil here, to refuse to help a woman because she was of the wrong ethnicity. He came close, so very close to sinning against love. But this woman pulled him back from the brink. You know how? She was the only person in all recorded history to throw Jesus’ words back to him and to defeat him in debate.
So Jesus proclaimed, “I can’t believe your faith! You are an amazing woman! Of course you belong in God’s kingdom! I wasn’t sure, because I wasn’t sure that Caananites, the people who were condemned to death, should be among the people of God. But you assured me! You and your daughter are fully deserving of God’s blessing! Be healed!”
But the example of Jesus compels us. If the Son of God can recognize that his compassion is inadequate, that he needs to welcome another group into the fold… then perhaps we do to. We should stop before we ignore the cries of the needy. And reconsider. And possibly repent.
Noah and Canaan– Genesis 9:20-27
Judah had a Canaanite wife, but his descendents weren’t by her– Gen 38
God taking the land– Exodus 23:20-33
Utterly destroy– Deut 2:33-34; Deut 7:16; Deut 20:16-17
Revoking command– Judges 2:21-23
Divorcing cannanite wives– Ezra 9-10