“Is anybody there? Does anybody care?” Have you ever struggled so hard to communicate only to be at best misunderstood and worse deliberately dismissed altogether? The roiling frustration can feel just as futile as trying to push a boulder up a steep hill single handedly. It can make us want to scream “Why aren’t you listening to me?” It’s defeating and can even be humiliating.
Today we find Jesus and the disciples have traveled to Tyre and Sidon far from the Jerusalem city center and it is there that we enter the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman. We don’t know her name. All we know is that she was of Canaan descent and that she was a Gentile, meaning that she was not Jewish, an outsider in her own homeland.
This unnamed Canaanite, Gentile, woman cries out to Jesus that her daughter is possessed by a demon. She makes a public spectacle and she’s ignored…at first. She continues to cry out, and Matthew writes that the disciples entreated Jesus to send her on her way. This was not their first first encounter with her and it had clearly been a while since she started raising her voice. Jesus tells her that the ministry he offers is for the kin-dom of Israel alone, in short, not for the likes of her. She refuses to relent, kneeling before Jesus and imploring him to help.
And that’s where this story gets…uncomfortable. Jesus counters her request by saying: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Wait a minute…what did Jesus just call her? Did he really just deny her his help? Did he declare her less than human? Jesus just called her a dog, a scavenger not to be confused with a beloved family pet. He informs her that because of factors of her birth beyond her control, he won’t offer her even a shred of his attention. It’s certainly not one of Jesus’ best moments on biblical record. Yet, rather than giving up and walking away with her tail between her legs, she persists and counters Jesus’ derogatory statement with one of the most astonishing comebacks in the bible. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
I want to pause for a moment to truly appreciate the significance of her statement. This unnamed woman who has knelt before Jesus, publicly yet humbly, corrects his error in judgment heedless of the potential consequences she could face for doing so. And Jesus doesn’t deny his mistake, he doesn’t get defensive, instead he praises her faith and her daughter is healed instantly as a result.
I think it’s so interesting that those who encounter Jesus from the outside are the ones that get so quickly what Jesus is trying to teach. This woman doesn’t need to be taught anything. She comes in, knowing who Jesus is, that he can do what she needs of him and she’s willing to push back until she gets it. She is then said to have great faith in contrast to Peter (and the other disciples) who are taught over and over but don’t get it. She doesn’t ever get a name, only a race, a religion, and a gender, yet she teaches Jesus and the disciples about the expansiveness of God’s welcome.
In this troubling story, [because of a persistent woman] Jesus teaches the value of listening, the value of hearing, and the value of being able to grow and change your mind. Jesus is God enough and human enough to change his mind. And that is Good News. God calls each of us to work to continually expand our thinking of who is welcome at the table of grace. Like Jesus, we won’t get it right every single time, but in those moments where we neglect to bring our best selves to the table, Jesus shows us the value of hearing critical feedback and then learning from it in order to do better in the future.