Have you ever experienced rejection in your personal or professional life? Have you felt ignored, overlooked, prejudiced against, or excluded? I think I already know your answers to these questions. This is why our today’s gospel story resonates so readily with us. In this disturbing account, a non-Israelite woman begs Jesus to heal her ill daughter. Jesus seems not only slow to respond, but even downright rude.
On a personal level -- as a woman, mother, and immigrant -- I find this story to be particularly emotionally charged. It is one thing to beg for something for yourself, and quite another - for your child. It is one thing to recognize that not all our desires will be fulfilled in this life, but it is quite another to realize that what is holding you back is only your gender and your accent (but aren’t we all drawn to people most like ourselves, ethnically and socio-economically?) And finally, it is one thing to accept that in this broken world, inequality abounds, and rich people’s pets are often fed before the poor people’s children; but quite another - to have your petitions ignored by God him/herself.
The Canaanite (also called Syrophenician) woman comes to Jesus out of sheer desperation. Somehow, she finds out that the new miracle worker has arrived in her area, and she begs him to cure her disturbingly, mysteriously ill child. Jesus ignores her, and tells his perturbed disciples that the suffering of people outside his ethnic group are of no concern to him. He even calls her a “dog” -- one who has no right to be fed before a child. The woman accepts the apparent insult without a protest, as she must have done countless times in her life. Yet, she persists, and retorts with the phrase, “even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus suddenly seems to have a change of heart; he commends her faith, and heals her daughter. Why doesn’t he do so immediately? Why does he deny the outsiders his help, and calls her a “dog”? And finally, why does her reply make him change his mind? Those are the questions that arise for me from this passage, as I empathize with this woman -- a mother and an outsider; and as I think of this ill child -- an innocent victim in the world made so complicated by us, adults.
Let’s start with the woman. She knows enough about Christ even as she approaches him, to call Him “Lord, Son of David” -- a Jewish title for the Messiah. However, at the start of this conversation, in spite of the right vocabulary, the extent of her intellectual faith is not clear. It’s quite possible that she thought Jesus to be a shaman tapping into the powers of the gods that she knew. What is obvious, though, is that by the end of their exchange, the woman arrives at the interpretation of the gospel that is far beyond that which the Jewish disciples, and maybe even Jesus himself, have by that point. Let us not minimize the significance of this observation: the woman knows that she can call on God, even as an outsider to the group which is presumed to have the right to worship him. She knows that she will not only be heard, but that she may hope for a benevolent response -- that the true God of Jesus’ teachings is a healer to the whole world, whose mercy extends to all creatures. And the beautiful thing is that as soon as she “gets it”, Jesus responds. The woman certainly had much to learn from this exchange, but I would argue that in doing so, she has also facilitated significant learning for the great Rabbi.
For the Israelites and Canaanites really did have a terrible past. On the one hand, it was rife with religious genocide. On the other hand, the Canaanites’ religious practices truly were horrible. Their belief system focused on a high god named “Molech” who demanded ritual prostitution and child sacrifice, and allowed worship of other, lesser deities. This insidious cult was, for some reason, irresistible to the Israelites, who were caught in a cycle of repentance and re-embracing those practices as a result of intermarrying or simply coexisting in the land. The Isrealites must have accused the Canaanites of leading them into idolatry, just as for generations, men would accuse women of seducing them into illicit relationships.
So, Jesus’ prejudice is hardly surprising. It was grounded in a combination of the mutual history of the two nations, the need to uphold his rabbi reputation, and possibly, even the limitation of Jesus’ own understanding of the scope of his ministry. What should we make of his apparent change of mind then? Was it simply part and parcel of being truly human? Or, as some have suggested, could Jesus have planned it all along to create a teaching moment for the woman and disciples? To me, this interpretation seems even worse; cold and calculating, and lacking compassion. I prefer to think that Jesus’ perspective did truly evolve over the first half of the exchange, and then he used the reference to the dogs to illustrate the understanding that he had gained.
It is, of course, the use of the canine metaphor in this narrative that provokes our indignation most strongly; whereas, interestingly, this part should be the least problematic, even enlightening, which I explain as follows. It has been argued that the ancient middle-Eastern cultures treated dogs with contempt, and used the word derisively. But this notion was likely mistaken, as abundant archaeological evidence points to the wide use and enjoyment of dogs, for both service and companionship; it was so in Canaanite and Israelite societies alike, as well as in Egypt, Syria, and the surrounding areas. To this day, an indignous breed, the Canaan Shepherd, is used in much the same way. However, in addition to household dogs, there were feral dogs that roamed the countryside, which were feared and detested. What’s important to note is that in Jesus’ lexicon there were two separate words for the two kinds of dogs, and the one he applies here is the one for the domestic companions - loyal and cherished household members, albeit valued a step below the children.
Once we give up the ingrained notion that to Jesus all dogs were vile, a number of interesting analogies arise between our spiritual lives and the symbolism of this exchange. First of all, isn’t it interesting that when we are truly humbled and reach the end of our rope, we suddenly know the right words to say to God. Or is it the Holy Spirit that makes them right for us in our hearts and minds? If so, as she first approaches Jesus, the mother in this narrative symbolizes our spirit, who intercedes for the salvation and healing of an ill child - our heart and soul, body and mind. This metaphor is then mirrored in the second half of the conversation, where the use of the term for a specifically domestic dog refers to the taming of our heart’s desires, and its subsequent feeding from the God’s table in prayer and communion (remember, only two weeks ago we have read about the feeding of the multitudes with the same implications).
The intellectual component of our faith may mature over time in conversations with others, in prayer, and even “negotiating” with God. But the gift of faith is such that it doesn’t require explicit instruction at its birth. Subsequently, the heart persists in learning, and in petitioning for more than our mind can “ask or imagine''. Our daily experiences in the broken world test our faith as well; but it is in the face of what seems to be a rejection that we become even stronger, more capable and confident by overcoming our challenges, both trivial and insurmountable. Of course, our coaches, mentors, and loved ones help us in this regard by not always making it easy on us (knowingly or unknowingly!).
We may also rest assured that, regardless of how deeply we are enmeshed in personal or systemic evil, regardless of how ashamed or afraid we are, God will not reject us. It is only if we allow ourselves to give up, to become full of pride, impatient, or insincere that we remain in spiritual infancy. The Canaanite woman and her ancestors were born into a broken society, there’s no denying that. But endless examples of wars, conflicts, evil political regimes, and perverse cults teach us that powerless victims cannot be held responsible for systemic evil. Where is the line between complicity and victimhood? What is it that enables us to hear a small voice in our hearts that begins to hint that the system is wrong? What are some tempting practices we have that we know full well to be destructive, but allow our hearts to be seduced by? What injustices do we tolerate or perpetrate? Those are all matters for personal discernment that take a lifetime of persistent faith and conversation with God. What matters is that even when we haven’t fully arrived (and few ever do!), we keep continually reevaluating our prejudices and ingrained beliefs. The Bible shows us that Jesus always saw people as individuals -- even if it took him a little while, as it was in this story. And so should we, with God’s help.