Today’s encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon is often misread and even misunderstood. People are often left scratching their heads wondering about Jesus’ treatment of this woman pleading for Jesus to heal her daughter. They often ask why Jesus denies her request at first. But as I read the account I don’t see anywhere that Jesus actually denies her request. The disciples tell Jesus to “send her away”. A similar response to the 5000 hungry people looking for food when Jesus told his disciples to feed them. But Jesus didn’t send the crowds away and he doesn’t send the woman away. His response is “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
He doesn’t say “no” but points out the unfairness if he were to respond to her request. But when does Jesus do anything that is considered fair by worldly standards? He tells a parable about a generous landowner who pays his workers the same amount whether they worked an hour or an entire day and is considered to be unfair even though it was what was agreed. He tells a parable about a father who welcomes back his prodigal son and is called “unfair” by the older brother for welcoming him back into the family and celebrating his return.
What is considered generosity by Jesus is often interpreted as unfair by those who see what he is doing. There are cries of unfairness as Jesus invites himself to the house of Zacchaeus while the religious leaders call him out as unfair for eating with tax collectors and sinners instead of them. Many consider God’s actions of judgment against sin as unfair: We are made this way by our Original Sin. We have no say over our sinfulness and yet we are judged. But again, in this, God’s generosity comes through this unfairness as God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21).
If we’re talking about “unfair”, how unfair was that for Jesus? God’s grace is often seen as unfair and today we see that at work as Jesus shows that God’s grace trumps fairness by worldly standards. Jesus uses this Canaanite woman as a teaching principle for the disciples who will one day continue Jesus’ ministry. They are going to go out and be challenged by Jesus’ inclusion of those considered outsiders. This is not the only time that Jesus has gone against conventions of his day – he healed a Samaritan leper – he spoke with a Samaritan woman. Both women and lepers were unconventional for a religious teacher like Jesus let alone Samaritans. We too are going to be challenged as we go out into the world to share the Gospel with outsiders. There are people we are more comfortable with but we are called to spread the word to all nations.
It’s interesting that the disciples question Jesus in regards to this Canaanite woman but not his going into Gentile countryside – Tyre and Sidon, part of Lebanon. As Lutherans it has been particularly challenging as we have for generations isolated ourselves from ecumenical relations operating with the principle – Lutheran pulpits for Lutherans only and Lutheran altars for Lutherans only – known as the Galesburg rule. Our challenge has come that our children are no longer marrying only Lutherans. Our Lutheran schools are seeing Lutherans as a minority both as students and teachers.
Just think how challenging it is for our School Pastors who are called to minister to predominantly non-Lutherans including, perhaps, a majority being non-Christian. Likewise for our Pastors in aged care – both sectors (education and aged care) growing too fast for us to keep up with. And also our Pastors serving in defence chaplaincy who faced the added challenge of inter-faith issues.. Imagine Peter’s challenge when the Holy Spirit called him to the home of Cornelius and he witnessed the Holy Spirit being given to Gentiles for the first time. Peter responds at God’s generosity: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. (Acts 10:34,35). When his fellow disciples heard what he did they criticized Peter and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:2,3). When Jesus gave the great commission he told his disciples to go to “all nations” to baptise. He also gave the instruction to teach. So as we go to invite all to God’s house and God’s table we are also called to teach. Not so they earn the right to be included but so they can truly understand and appreciate what it is they are receiving. This woman was received and helped by Jesus without first needing to renounce her citizenship.
The reality is that God does love all people – God loved the world so much that he sent his Son to die for our sins.
God doesn’t make any distinction between Jews and Canaanites, between those who appear to be righteous and those who don’t. As Jesus says: He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45).
Sometimes God sends in our path people who are difficult – people who are outside our comfort zone – people with whom we disagree and to help them may make us feel that we are going against God’s will. Those who do not believe in Christ are not infidels – they are not the enemy. They are people for whom Jesus also died who have not come to know how much God loves them.
It’s interesting that Jesus commends the woman for her faith. What faith does she have? She is not a Jew although she addresses Jesus by his correct title: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; We too get people coming to the Church looking for help even though they are not part of our community. It’s easy to send them away. We don’t have the resources. The Salvos are probably able to help you better. But for some reason God has sent them to us and as difficult and as inconvenient as it is to us we are God’s presence. As we go about our daily routine we see the Canaanite women that God places in our path – but are we sometimes more like the priest and Levite who crossed the other side of the road in the parable of the Good Samaritan. I find it really hard too, like when I turned up to church last Sunday and find someone sleeping in the doorway and my first thought is the inconvenience rather than the opportunity to help and ringing in my ears is “as much as you did not do it for the least of these you did not do it for me”. As we look back will we regret the opportunity missed to extend the grace of God. I am sorry for the way I first responded but I’m also thankful that Jesus listens when I cry out: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; we don’t always get it right but we have a merciful God who forgives. But I hope and pray that it will teach me that what I see as an inconvenience, like the Canaanite woman to the disciples, is seen as an opportunity that God has placed before me to show ju