Matthew “withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” This was outside Jewish territory. It’s the area we call Lebanon, the land of the Phoenicians. Jesus may have needed a break. Traveling into Gentile territory could hopefully give him some peace and quiet. The religious leaders had been stalking him, taking note of everything he said and did. He was in open and hostile conflict with them. On the other hand, his popularity with the people was growing. They followed him hoping for healing and hungry for his preaching. Going into Gentile territory would give him a break from the harassment of the religious authorities, and a bit of rest from the crowds. However, the peace and quiet was short-lived. A Canaanite woman began calling after him.
There was no love lost between Canaanites and Jews. Upon entering the Promised Land, the Jewish people were confronted with the populations already living there.
They were pagans and racially different. The Book of Deuteronomy recounts God’s command to the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land.
“When the Lord your God, brings you into the land which you are to occupy, and dislodges great nations before you – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites: seven nations more numerous and powerful than you – when the Lord, your God, delivers them up to you and you defeat them, you shall doom them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. You shall not intermarry with them, neither giving your daughters to their sons nor taking their daughters for your sons. For they would turn your sons from following me to serving other gods, and then the wrath of the Lord would flare up against you and quickly destroy you. This is how you are to deal with them. Tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, chop down their sacred poles, and destroy their idols by fire” (Deuteronomy 7:1-5).
Matthew was quite aware of that moment in Jewish history, and well aware of the ongoing attitude of Jews toward Gentiles. However, the incident he was about to report was no ordinary healing. He wanted his readers to take particular attention to this account. He wrote, “And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out…” The acclamation, “behold,” is a literary spotlight. It means, PAY ATTENTION – THIS IS IMPORTANT!
It’s not clear from the account whether the woman was alone and following Jesus and his disciples, or if there was a small crowd of people who had heard of Jesus following them and this woman called out from within the crowd. However, this Canaanite woman began shouting to get Jesus’ attention. She used a very special phrase. “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!” The phrase acknowledged him as the Messiah, Son of David, and as Lord. The disciples are embarrassed by her shouts and plead with Jesus to send her away.
Jesus answered them in a strange way. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” If he was sent ONLY to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, why didn’t he dismiss her? He didn’t send her away because he needed to have her join him in a most profound teaching. His answer to the disciples was what they would have expected to hear. Remember, there was a wall between Jews and Gentiles. The disciples believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the savior of the Jewish people. The Gentiles would not part be a part of Jesus’ mission.
“But the woman came and did Jesus homage.” She had already shouted that her daughter was “tormented by a demon,” and that she needed his help. She pleaded with him a second time, “Lord, help me.” What he said to her shocks us. But it shocked the disciples and the woman in another, way. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
Referring to someone as a dog was a terrible insult. Jesus and the disciples would have been most familiar with the term “Gentile dog” because it used commonly. Years later the disciples would hear the term “Christian dog” spit at them. This is how we hear what Jesus said. However, Jesus didn’t use the ordinary word for dog. In Jesus’ time dogs often ran wild. They wandered the streets, rummaging through garbage. They were often rabid. We sometimes see this situation in developing countries. But Jesus didn’t use the term for that kind of dog. That’s what shocked the disciples and the woman. The word he used referred to “a cute little lap dog.”
When he used that word the disciples must have taken a second look, and the woman must have broken into a child-like smile. She moved right in with a playful response. “Please, Lord, for even the little lap dogs eat the scraps that fall form the table of their masters.” Jesus must have been smiling when he acknowledged the tremendous love and faith she had. “O woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.”
This woman’s heartfelt plea was the catalyst that broke down the Gentile/Jewish divide. She fully expected to be sent away. She expected to be dismissed as a rabid street dog. But Jesus was everything she had hoped he would be. He connected with her heart. He applauded her faith. He healed her daughter. There was no religious/racial wall separating her and Jesus.
I can never read this passage without thinking of the opening line of Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
We’ve been building walls since the beginning of humankind. We try to keep people in with them. We try to keep people out with them. They’re not always made of stone. Sometimes we put up a psychological wall to separate us from some people who are different from us. We may not know how to integrate them into our world. So we try to shut them out. Sometimes class is the wall separating us – the hoi polloi from the privileged folk. Social stigma separates us, and is sometimes the most horrible and cruel wall that we build and maintain.
I was once in a subway car when a truly wretched man came in. His clothes were ripped and filthy. He had messed himself. He held a cup in his dirty hand and began to ask for money. Not one person responded to his plea. In fact, one woman, with great aplomb, jumped up from her seat and, holding her nose, ran to the other end of the car. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”