“When Jesus Dismissed a Woman”
August 20, 2023
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
The signs of autumn looming are starting to increase. The recent chilly nights, the lengthening shadows in the yard, and the blush on the Sumac combine to herald the seasonal shift.
Nature is not alone in providing early indications of autumn. Major League Baseball does, too, last night’s Packer game notwithstanding. Last week, MLB announced the schedule for the series playoffs beginning with four Wild Card game on October 3. While this news has millions of people beginning to anticipate fall, my hopes diminish that summer might miraculously endure for a couple more months.
Even as I fail to hold summer in place, I realize that baseball is, in many aspects a game of failure. If a player gets a base hit every three out of ten times, he is likely to land in the Hall of Fame. A 70% failure rate. Some of the greatest hitters in baseball history are also the players who struck out the most. Reggie Jackson, the 14-time American League All-Star struck out 2,597 times, the most in MLB history. Hall of Famer Jim Thomes struck out 2,548 times.
In baseball, three strikes means you are out. Go back to the dugout and wait for another chance. Three strikes relates to this story of a persistent woman and Jesus.
The story begins when Jesus is confronted by a Canaanite woman who is chasing after him asking for help. In the time of Jesus, a Canaanite was a foreigner, an outsiders to the Jew. They were the indigenous people of the Promised Land and the Bible paints a pretty grim picture of Canaanite practices. This outsider daring to speak to Jesus is strike one against this woman.
Strike two is her gender. In ancient Israel women were second class and largely confined to the household. They were subservient to men and considered the property of their husbands or their fathers. Simply being female is strike two against her.
Strike three is that she is pushy. Three times she speaks to Jesus, making her plea. Then, as even today in many places in the world, when a woman speaks out, she can be accused of being nagging, pushy, annoying or uppity. Conversely, when a man speaks out, he is often considered decisive or leader-like. Some things never seem to change.
So what about this pushy Canaanite woman? She presses Jesus so much that his disciples say, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
Jesus’ response is bizarre. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That’s a gut punch. We expect him to be compassionate to her. Not to make excuses for Jesus here, but realize that he is acting out of his own culture. He behaves in a way that would have been expected of him as a male in those times.
At this point Jesus, with a dismissive attitude, hopes he’s done with her. But she won’t let go of her request; she kneels before him. “Lord, help me,” she says. And then the clincher — this jaw dropping response from Jesus: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The Canaanite woman is bold and persistent. The life of her daughter is at stake. She picks up his words and throws them right back: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She simply speaks the truth: “just a day ago you fed thousands of adults and children with a few fish and loaves of bread. And there were leftovers! Surely there’s enough for me and my daughter.” That’s when Jesus finally heard her and came to believe. He says, “Woman, great is your faith!” Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
Did Jesus make a mistake by initially dismissing her? Maybe that’s a troubling question to consider. The pat answer is, “No, Jesus could not make a mistake. After all, he was the Son of God, and God doesn’t make mistakes.”
Do you think Jesus ever changed his mind? Maybe that’s a less troubling question to consider. In the Gospels, we read that he changed his mind. The most glaring evidence comes just hours before his crucifixion. In the Garden of Gethsemane while deep in conversation with God, he said, ‘Well, then let it not be my will but your will.’”
In this story about the Canaanite woman, we read of another moment when Jesus changed his mind. But did Jesus make a mistake?
Well, it seems so, and he certainly changed his mind because when this woman would not relent and said to him, “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith.” In that moment, his love for her was deepened by the fact that her love transcended all of the barriers that would have held her at bay. His disciples underestimated her, Jesus underestimated her. She was not just a Canaanite, and she was not only a woman trying to have her voice heard; she was something else. She was a mother. She was not coming to Jesus asking for something for herself but for the child she loved. The depth of that love would not be denied. Certainly, not by Jesus.
Over the years, preachers have tried to clean up this story: Jesus was testing this woman to see if she had enough faith. When she passed the test, Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” That verse has caused plenty of pain because some people have heard Jesus saying, “If you had more faith your …” fill in the blank for whatever loss, heartache or disappointment you can imagine. But the woman in this story doesn’t make any confession of faith.
How about this for another clean up attempt: Because this woman submits to Jesus and kneels before him, Jesus heals her daughter. “Go and do likewise. Amen” is how the preacher would wrap up that message.
It is understandable to want to try and clean up this story, hold to our assumptions and pretend that Jesus was always kind, compassionate and loving; Jesus would never say such a thing. He didn’t give in to cultural expectations. I believe if we tried to clean up this story, we would be making a serious mistake.
Sometimes we will do almost anything to make Jesus who we want him to be.
But Matthew doesn’t clean up this story. Matthew dares to give us a very human Jesus and he paints a specific picture of this woman.
This story needs to stand on its own as strange and bizarre as it is. It must confront us to say that Jesus lived as part of a culture and was acting in a very human way dismissing this woman, because she was a foreigner, because she was female, and because she was pushy. Three strikes.
But here three strikes didn’t result in the woman losing out. Three strikes and she was in. Jesus was converted that day to a larger vision of the society of God. He saw and heard a fuller revelation of God in the face and voice of the Canaanite woman.
At the end of Matthew 15 there is another mass feeding story like the feeding of the 5000 which appears in chapter 14. This time 4000 men are fed — besides women and children — and there were leftovers. Matthew has intentionally placed the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman between the two mass feeding stories. The Canaanite woman taught Jesus that she and her daughter deserve more than crumbs. After this encounter Jesus went on to feed those who had not yet been fed.
If Jesus could be changed, can we? Every generation sees some people as “other” and puts them under the table. We could make an extensive list of people we see as different — different race, different customs, different religion.
The echo of this story for the lives of women around the world should haunt us at this moment. How many women continue to be denied their opportunity to serve in the capacities for which they are gifted and prepared simply by the outcome of their birth and gender? How many women in the world are denied educations, freedom of movement and careers by powerful men and oppressive religious rules? How many women in the world, even today, are dismissed for simply being strident when, in fact, they are voices for justice?
There’s a message, I believe, in this simple, profound, bizarre, deep story that we should reflect on today. It is a message that says women do have a place in spiritual leadership; that says women have that place no matter what culture or color or background they may come from; that says that their voices must be heard because they speak a word of convicting love so profound and so deep that it can change the mind of God.
Spirit of Grace Church, Hood River, Oregon.