What happened to our compassionate saviour? – Wednesday, 18th Week in ordinary time – Matthew 15: 21-28
“Are you still without understanding” (Mt 15:16) was surely a statement of frustration from Our Lord. Not only had he to deal with the scribes and the Pharisees who had travelled from Jerusalem to reprimand this new Rabbi on the block (15:1) but he also had to deal with his own who did not understand what he stood for. They, as we know in Matthew 15:12, would rather please the Pharisees than follow Christ. “Blind guides of the blind,” was Jesus’ retort to these self-styled religious guardians of faith.
Perhaps it was this that pushed Jesus to take a trip further North West into what was for the Jews, forbidden land. Tyre and Sidon were ancient Canaanite cities which were renamed Phoenicia (‘Phoenicia’ was the name given to the region by the Greeks, from their word for purple). The names of Tyre and Sidon are mentioned several times in the Old Testament.
Situated in modern-day Lebanon, these were the traditional enemies of the Israelites. The people of this land, which Israel conquered under Joshua, were considered pagans by the Jews. Many of the Canaanites had been pushed northward into Phoenicia when the Hebrews invaded the territory. The hatred was mutual and understandable.
This narrative is very relatable when you look at it from the perspective of socio-cultural alienation or simply racial discrimination. Just before Jesus departed from the Sea of Galilee, He addressed the issue of defilement. His disciples asked Him about His comments. He answered them, “It is what comes out of a man, that defiles him.”
I would like to think that this was a test for the disciples to see if they were prejudiced. Unfortunately, the disciples failed this test as well. We are told that a woman (Matthew identifies her as a Canaanite and Mark says a Greek, a Syro-Phornicain by birth) came to Jesus and cried out to Him, “Have mercy on me, O Lord (Kurios), Son of David! She cried for mercy because as a Canaanite, she was not part of the covenant community, yet she knew that Jesus was the God and King of the nation of Israel. She now states her need for her daughter is severely demon-possessed.” She heard from others that Jesus was in town and knew that He had cast out demons in Galilee. She may have thought, “This is the Man that could take care of my daughter’s problem.”
The next line is perhaps the hardest line to read; a line that does not sit well with the loving Saviour we know Jesus to be, for we are told, “he did not answer her at all.” It is at this moment that the disciples chime in. They misinterpret His silence as a rejection of her. Their nationalistic pride led to prejudice against this woman, so they discriminated against her by saying to Jesus, “Get rid of her! She is harassing us as well.”
When we read the text, it seems to us that Jesus at first ignores her, while addressing His disciples. He seems to give them and not her, His rationale for not helping; “He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Here is where Jesus meets His Waterloo. Never underestimate the power of a desperate mother and if it means that she has to kneel before Him and beg, then kneel she does.
It’s a bit mind-boggling to think that this compassionate Saviour has turned her down twice already and the second time He does it with what seems like an unexplainable slur; “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”. Not only is this harsh to hear but even more repugnant when you realise that this was a contemptuous way of referring to the Gentiles; they were called kuon, meaning “wild cur” or an unclean dog. Jesus however uses the word kunarion, meaning “small dog” or “pet dog”. He did not insult her as the Jews did with the Gentiles, by calling them dogs but was merely explaining a point, using an example of a pet dog.
Perhaps it is a mother’s instinct that kicks in, one who will not be deterred by apparent negativity or insult. She is willing, even if it has to be like a pet dog, to joyfully accept the scraps. Heads must have turned listening to that comment and perhaps in Matthew’s community, hearts must have changed. It certainly made a deep impression on Jesus for repeatedly until now, He has had to chastise His disciples and even Peter for their little faith. It was a Gentile, an outsider, a foreigner, one considered unclean and slurred upon, who wins the heart of Jesus with her ‘great faith’.
Surely but steadily, Matthew’s late first-century readers were getting the point. The claim to merely be Abraham’s children would get them nowhere if they did not mirror the ‘great faith’ of their historic enemies.
The day belonged to the underdog!