This week I came across the story of a lively two-year-old with freckles and blond hair named Billy. For over a year his mother kept bringing him to the Emergency Room because he was having trouble breathing. The doctors decided Billy had asthma and treated him for it. Only, that diagnosis didn’t really seem to fit. He didn’t have asthma as an infant. There wasn’t a family history of it. He hadn’t shown any allergies that could cause it. So, the ER would treat Billy and send him home, but sometimes his breathing was so bad that he would end up in the pediatric ICU.
I can only imagine the stress Billy’s mother was going through as she cared for him. What was wrong with Billy? Would he be able to run and play like other kids? Would he ever get better? Parents suffer alongside their children, don’t they?
The staff that was treating Billy grew quite fond of him since he was such a frequent flyer. About a year into this ordeal, Billy came into the ER again with breathing issues. An intern took the exam this time. The intern took a close look up Billy’s nose. To his surprise, he saw something in Billy’s nose — a black jelly bean that Billy’s brother had put there a year before. The intern extracted the jelly bean and the year’s worth of nasty accumulation with it, and Billy was all better. He was healed, and so was his mother’s persistent worry. It was a cure for his breathing, and it was a cure for his mother’s worry over Billy’s health. Call it a double cure.
Our story from Matthew also is about a double cure. There is a child who is tormented by a demon, and there is a mother who is tormented by her daughter’s situation. She is searching high and low for an answer to what ails them, except there are so many barriers in the way to finding wholeness. Nothing she has tried has worked.
She has heard of a Jewish rabbi who has performed the miraculous, particularly in the region around the Sea of Galilee. Except there are many issues. First, she doesn’t live in Galilee. She lives in the district of Tyre and Sidon — Gentile territory. Second, she’s not Jewish. She’s Canaanite. Jews and Canaanites did not get along. They’ve got a history of conflict — after all, the Canaanites were living in the Promised Land when the Hebrews conquered it. They also have different religious practices. So, the problems of geography and ethnicity already are there, and they are compounded by gender. It was not acceptable for women to approach a rabbi in public. We all know in baseball it’s three strikes and your out. This suffering woman has struck out before the game even started.
This story makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? If for some reason you weren’t squirming when you heard it, you should be. It’s a hard story. There is suffering. It appears that Jesus is at best ambivalent to suffering and at worst prejudiced against this woman. This is not the kind of story we’d share with someone who wants to hear how wonderful Jesus is. It’s uncomfortable.
Yet, let’s take a closer look to see what’s really going on here. Just prior to this story, religious leaders from Jerusalem have traveled to Galilee to question Jesus. They want to know why he and his disciples don’t follow the rules the way these leaders have interpreted them. Jesus has some stern words for the religious insiders, words he speaks publicly both to his disciples and to the crowds. He asserts that these religious folks are more concerned with outward appearances. They follow the law, but their hearts don’t understand the purpose of the law. Jesus condemns their behavior by stressing that the inner state of the person reflects who they really are and is then evident in how they live. So, Jesus has stood in opposition to the teachings and actions of the religious leaders from Jerusalem.
Matthew doesn’t tell us why Jesus leaves his ministry home base, but the next thing he does after this challenging interaction is go northwest into Gentile territory. Sure, there are Jews all over the region, but Jesus is now a stranger in a strange land. He’s in the minority, as are his disciples with him.
Still, Jesus’ reputation has preceded him, and this suffering Canaanite woman is not only aware that her geography problem is no longer a problem but also that she believes that he is able to help her and her daughter. Given that this interaction with this woman is the only thing reported from this trip, it gives me cause to think that Jesus took this trip for her. Sure, it’s a harsh interaction — we’ll get to that — but I believe this travel was purposeful. After the cold interaction with those who should be most engaged with what God is doing in Jesus, he will now find faith in someone about as far removed from the establishment as possible. And his disciples will find their own prejudices challenged in the process, something that will be essential to the mission of the church after Jesus is gone. This story not only has a double cure; it is also a way of educating the disciples and the readers of this story of God’s love.
So, Jesus comes to town, and this woman is determined to find a breakthrough in her daughter’s life. She’s bold, breaking all conventions. Seeing Jesus, she shouts, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” So, let’s just pause there for a second. Isn’t it interesting that she is asking for mercy for herself and not her daughter? As a mother, she needs mercy too, and she’s asking for it. But she also is making a theological claim that most others aren’t willing to make. She believes that Jesus is the Messiah. The title “Son of David” is a Messianic one. The religious leaders from Jerusalem certainly weren’t sold on that, but she’s all in. But then, she gets to the core of the matter. “My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
And this is where things get awkward. Jesus says nothing to her. How do you hear a cry for help like that and at least not respond, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” But silence. Scholar Ken Bailey calls this the first part of a three-part exam. Jesus is testing both this woman and his disciples. We might think that’s a bit unfair, but difficult exams are also what teachers give to their most capable students, right? This one is a doozy. The woman will pass it with flying colors. The disciples will fail it miserably, but they will also learn from their mistakes, which is what students are supposed to do!
Part one of the exam is Jesus doing what is expected. Rabbis don’t talk to women, so his disciples see him doing what is customary. The woman keeps shouting, keeps asserting her right to mercy. Annoyed, the disciples step in. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” They are at a crossroads. Jesus is silent. The woman is pleading. The disciples are annoyed. She is displaying the depth of her courage and faith. The disciples are displaying how much they need to grow in courage and faith.
Finally, Jesus gives an answer his disciples would expect. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” he says. If we look at the Hebrew Bible and even the pattern of witness in the New Testament, Jesus’ statement has merit. Paul opens Romans with these words that are echoed throughout the Bible, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is God’s saving power for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Gentile.” God’s salvation works its way through the Jews to the rest of the world. This woman is brilliant in anticipating this to be true and claims it for herself. But, the disciples don’t get it yet.
This moves us to the second part of the test. She kneels before him and pleads, “Lord, help me.” The shouting is done. She is throwing herself at Jesus in raw simplicity. She needs his help. Eyes looking up to Jesus, she pleads for help, and his response is stunning and harsh. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In that day, dogs were not household pets. They were not a part of the family. They were kept outside the home. “Dogs” is also a Jewish slur for foreigners. Hearing it is jarring. So, what is going on?
Jesus is verbalizing where the disciples’ exclusionary theology leads, which feels doubly terrible given that they are in foreign territory. I mean, would you go to Toronto, Canada, and start talking loudly on the streets about how all Americans are better than Canadians? It wouldn’t go over well, and it’s just a dumb, untrue thing to say. What Jesus says is accurate to the disciples’ beliefs, but it is shocking to hear. Ken Bailey points this out. “It is acutely embarrassing to hear and see one’s deepest prejudices verbalized and demonstrated.” Jesus is saying out loud what they are thinking, and so he is calling them out to learn a new way from him. So, this woman has passed the second test, and the disciples are still failing.
The woman aces the third test in her response. She takes the slur Jesus used and still demands mercy, even for “dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she says, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Her response is “a deadly blow to the disciples’ carefully nurtured prejudices against women and Gentiles.” Her faith is powerful, believing through it all that Jesus is God’s agent of healing and salvation. Jesus recognizes this and gives her what she’s demanding. Her daughter is healed. This woman is healed. She has broken through to the double cure.
The poet and artist Jan Richardson has a beautiful poem called “Stubborn Blessing” that speaks to the heart of this.
Don’t tell me no.
I have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill
from your hands
like water, like wine,
seen you with circles
and circles of crowds
pressed around you
and not one soul
Don’t start with me.
I am saying
you can close the door
but I will keep knocking.
You can go silent
but I will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle
but I will trace a bigger one
around the life of my child
who will tell you
no one surpasses a mother
I am saying
I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
Unclench your hand,
Let the scraps fall
for the life
of my child,
the life of
Don’t you tell me no.
Friends, to use Ken Bailey’s words once more, “Evil cannot be redeemed until it is exposed.” In this troubling account, Jesus and this woman are exposing the evil of religion that is prejudiced against its neighbors. It brings a reckoning to ideas that would close off anyone from God’s love. It also puts on display that the world needs prophetic stances like this woman’s to help bring correction. So, take this disruptive story into your life, and see how God is rooting out the prejudice you carry that keeps others from God’s love. Then, let the Spirit break through to you and bring you to full life. God is speaking still…even today…even to you.
 1001 Illustrations that Connect, 139.
 Bailey, Kenneth, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, 223.
 Ibid., 224.
 © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.
 Bailey, 226.