Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”  Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.  He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
It’s great to visit other countries. I really enjoy getting out of England and seeing some of the rest of the world. There’s nothing better than a relaxing holiday in foreign climes – especially, in my opinion, if those climes are warmer and sunnier than at home! But trips away also have the potential to change us. Sometime ago I spent a month in Belarus, and those four weeks away changed me more as a person than any other four-week period that I can remember. Whilst I was dating my wife, I often visited her at home in Northern Ireland. It dawned on me one day whilst there how I had always regarded people from countries other than England as somehow “different” – but that when I was in Northern Ireland it was me who was “different,” not the Northern Irish! Perhaps we’re ALL different – or, looking at it from another perspective, perhaps we’re all the same really, no matter where we are from, or what our culture, beliefs or heritage are.
In today’s passage, Jesus has left behind the familiar Jewish region of Galilee, perhaps as a result of his run in with the Pharisees, that we reflected upon yesterday. He has withdrawn to the region of Tyre and Sidon, where he no doubt hoped to escape from the crowds of people who had been following him. No sooner had he arrived, though, when he is confronted by “a Canaanite woman.”
It’s very interesting how this woman addresses Jesus. Despite Jesus’ expectation that he would be rather more anonymous away from Galilee, this woman immediately cries out to him, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” She understood that Jesus was a descendent of King David – as the prophesied Messiah would be. What’s more, she follows up this statement with a plea – “my daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” She clearly believed that Jesus had the ability to expel the demon and to end her suffering.
Is it possible that she recognises Jesus as the Jewish Messiah – something that even the disciples had failed to fully grasp? Her greeting here would suggest that yes, she does!
Jesus’ response has challenged believers for generations – he seems to be uncharacteristically dismissive. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” he declares. When she falls to her knees and begs him, “Lord, help me!” Jesus responds with the statement, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Is Jesus calling this woman a dog?! Apparently the word rendered dog here is actually closer to the word ‘puppy,’ suggesting a beloved household pet rather than a vicious wild animal, but even so, it still doesn’t sound very polite!
Some writers have pondered whether this is the more human aspect of Jesus’ character coming through. Perhaps Jesus himself hasn’t fully grasped what it means to be Messiah, they reason. I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable to comment on this, but if Jesus was sin-free, as Christians hold him to be, I would suggest that we need to be careful where such thinking takes us!
Whatever the reason for Jesus’ seemingly harsh response, the woman gives as good as she gets. She replies, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She’s not looking for the full blessing that the Messiah bestows on the Jews – but she believes that there is enough blessing to go round, and maybe even just a little might come her way – and that little will be enough to save her daughter.
Sure enough, this is the case. Jesus is so impressed, perhaps so moved by this women’s pleas, that he grants her request and her daughter is healed.
Does the trip outside Jewish territories change Jesus’ thinking? It is entirely possible. Certainly we see the dawning of the next phase of his ministry – a ministry to save the whole world from their sin, not just the Jewish people.
Maybe encountering people who are different to us is important for all of us. Maybe it helps us to better understand the world, and our place in it. Maybe it helps us to see people different to us not merely as “those others,” but people who are fundamentally the same as we are.
I think particularly of those migrants who are desperate to cross the English Channel to build new lives in England. By making the crossing, they are risking their lives – and many have died in their attempts to find safety. What must be driving them from their homes that makes the Channel crossing seem like a risk worth taking? How do we view these people? Are they “other,” outsiders who do not deserve the lives that we lead? Or are they not so different to us really? How would we act if we were in their shoes?
The Gospel message is for all people – people like us, and people who, at first glance, are not quite like us. We have a duty, a mission, to reach out to all people, and to share Jesus’ love and message of new life with everyone.
Perhaps we should get out of our comfort zone and strive to meet more people who we think are different to us? Maybe our view of ourselves and the world might change – possibly for the better!