by Mike Bowling
Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman produces an uncomfortable reaction from many of us. Jesus’ disciples are portrayed as dismissive and insensitive. Persistent men are seen as assertive, but persistent women are characterized as “pushy.” The woman in the story seems relentless in her pursuit of Jesus’ attention; her cause is both clear and compelling. However, the disciples see her as a pest, and can’t be bothered with her. They request that Jesus send her away; after all, not only is she a “pushy” woman, she is a Gentile “pushy” woman. With that, Jesus affirms the exclusive nature of his mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Story over. Case closed. Let’s move on.
But on further review, this story continues with many lessons to be learned from this remarkable woman. First, she teaches us that persistence is more effective when it is combined with perception. How did a Gentile Canaanite woman know to address Jesus with the messianic title “Son of David”? Obviously, she was aware of what was being said about Jesus. Second, she teaches us that when the cause is noble, you need to push past the initial resistance; there will always be those blinded by their limited perspective. Third, cleverness framed in respect is compelling. The woman humbles herself, bowing before Jesus; she respectfully repeats her plea for help. When Jesus responds with the disturbing sentence, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs (household pets).,” the woman’s clever and respectful response wins Jesus over. He declares her a woman of great faith. Her prayer is honored, and her daughter is healed “at once.”
And now, let’s learn some lessons from Jesus. First, Jesus demonstrates awareness and alignment with God’s plan. Scripture reveals God’s plan to call out and covenant with a people who would be a display of God’s desire for all of humanity. Jesus was and is God’s last word and final act of the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Notification and opportunity promised originally to Israel rightly comes first to Israel. As Paul would later write, the nations (Gentiles) are grafted into the original tree (Romans 9-11). But Jesus is not legalistic or narrow in his view of God’s plan: The plan is Israel first, but the end of the plan is people who are unswerving in their trust of the Jesus way of being. Second, Jesus reminds us there are many good causes, and there are many tragic stories symptomatic of a world resistant to the way God has revealed in Jesus. Sometimes, the urge to fix all the problems of the world seems like the right thing to do; however, it is easy to substitute that urge in place of the plan God has for fixing a broken world. Even our most compassionate acts are secondary to God’s primary plan of forming a faithful people who display for all the world the Jesus way of health and wholeness.
Finally, both Jesus and the Canaanite woman teach us the single most important lesson of all. The woman loves her daughter; she manifests her love by disregarding those who were obstacles to her mission, perhaps because of her gender or nationality. She believes Jesus can heal her daughter. Her love is such that she will humble herself, humiliate herself and keep pleading for the sake of her daughter. Jesus honors her faithful self-giving love. Consider the possibility that her actions foreshadow the faithful self-giving love Jesus will display on the cross, and remember God honors Jesus’ actions by raising him from the dead…good lessons for the week before Lent!