Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed." But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, "Send her away, for she cried out after us." But He answered and said, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, "Lord, help me!" But He answered and said, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs." And she said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered and said to her, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
- Matthew 15:21-28
On Saturday, we read that the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, "Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread." He answered and said to them, "Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.' But you say, 'Whoever says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God" -- then he need not honor his father or mother. Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'" When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, "Hear and understand: Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man." Then His disciples came and said to Him, "Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?" But He answered and said, "Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch." Then Peter answered and said to Him, "Explain this parable to us." So Jesus said, "Are you also still without understanding? Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man."
Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon are coastal cities of the Gentile region north of Galilee called Phoenicia. In our previous reading, scribes and Pharisees had come from Jerusalem, and begun to make inquiries of Jesus' ministry, and stating that His disciples were violating the tradition of the elders. Jesus has gone to this region in response to temporarily withdraw from the scrutiny of the religious officials.
And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed." My study bible points out for us the quality of character in this woman. She tells Jesus, "Have mercy on me," but it is an expression of the depth of love she has for her daughter, whose sufferings she experiences as her own.
But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, "Send her away, for she cried out after us." But He answered and said, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." We may feel that this response indicates a surprising heartlessness in Jesus, but that would indeed be out of character. First of all, we are to understand that His ministry before the Passion is first to the Jews. However, many Church Fathers view the disciples' encouragement to "Send her away" as a request for Jesus to give her what she wants so that she will leave. But Christ does not want her to leave, and instead His response draws her out further, revealing her faith and love. Also, Jesus' response that He was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel makes clear the Jewish orientation of Matthew's Gospel, in addition to the title "Son of David" used by the woman in the previous verse. Neither of these details are included in Mark's version (Mark 7:24-30).
Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, "Lord, help me!" But He answered and said, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs." And she said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered and said to her, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire." And her daughter was healed from that very hour. That the woman "worshiped" Christ (the word in Greek indicates that she knelt or became prostrate before Him, a position indicative of worship). Her whole response indicates her humility; she accepts her place beneath the Jews (the chosen people of God), yet still desires a share in God's grace. My study bible says that Christ's hesitancy was not a lack of compassion, but rather a conscious means of revealing the virtues of this woman -- both to the disciples and also for her own sake. There is a great revelation of humility, love of truth, and deep faith in her overall response to Christ. His ultimate acceptance of her is a clear indication of the gathering of the Gentiles into the Church after Pentecost, as my study bible puts it, "No longer as dogs, but as children who are invited to eat the bread of eternal life." Our first concern as those who come from far outside the time and place of this reading might be about the insulting term used. But there's an important cultural distinction between outside or inside dogs: here the term is "little dogs" or puppies, inside dogs -- and the image of puppies begging at the household table is both softened and also apt for the "pestering" sense in which the disciples viewed her persistent pleas.
In a certain sense, there is a subtle message in today's reading about the Gentile believers who will come to Christ in the future: in some sense, they have to work harder than the Jewish faithful who will follow Him. They have more work to do to "catch up" and to "prove themselves." This woman clearly knows about the Jewish faith and the expectation of the Messiah. She knows about Jesus. Even the fact that she deems her daughter to be "demon-possessed" shows her orientation to and understanding of the Jewish faith. So all of these clues are there in the text teaching us about how far she has come already to be in Jesus' presence asking for help for her daughter -- and that is in addition to her personal character traits revealed here: great love and mercy, persistence, and humility. These are the qualities, the text seems to hint to us, that Christ is looking for in His ministry -- but perhaps more particularly in those who will come to Him from the Gentiles. We see similar qualities displayed by other Gentiles in the Gospels, perhaps notably in the centurion of Capernaum (see this earlier reading from Matthew). The story seems to hint to us that not only are Gentiles capable of receiving Christ as Messiah, but they will also become "people of God," that is, those who accept Jewish spiritual history and also may embody the best qualities of the faithful. Here, in some sense, is the story of the ministry that will go out to all the world: none will be left out, but of those who will be His followers much is demanded. Christ asks us all for more: our faith may be tested, and we will need to have the qualities of this woman -- not only having an understanding of our faith and the tradition into which Christ is born incarnate and has come as Messiah, but also to draw out of us persistence, mercy, humility, tenacity, and love. That deep desire for what He offers must be present. His Church is to be born into the world not to suggest that we will all have an easy time of it, but rather to call us to something better, deeper, richer, and more powerful. That is, something that asks much of us and calls us to the capacities a truly loving parent wishes to see fulfilled in their children. And that is the faith we know, the preaching we hear from Jesus, the way we are called. He asks of us to be all that we can be, the image and likeness He knows we carry within us. The grace He gives is that grace that we need to follow through on this journey and realize His promise. Do you hear that call?