He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” (Mt 15:23-24).
I would encourage you to read in full Matthew 15:21-28 to get the full feel of this Gospel account. (If needed, see the link below).
Jesus’ reaction in this scene does not appear to be consistent with how he has acted toward others who have approached him in the past. Is he just having a bad day and taking it out on this woman? Is his reaction because she is a woman and a Gentile at that? I don’t believe either case to be true.
Jesus has seen his disciples time and again attempting to turn people away, just as recently when the five thousand were hungry and they were ready to send them to the nearby villages, knowing the hour was late to get their food. Jesus was also tired that day too, all but spent, yet, even so, I am sure that he did not check to see who were the card-carrying Jews among those gathered, but instead fed all that were present.
I wonder if Jesus was not so much testing the woman’s faith, as much as he was testing the faith and the response of his disciples. The woman was calling for help. Would the disciples offer to provide her support, following the lead of Jesus who they have observed so many times before? Jesus remained silent to her initial plea for help. What did the disciples do? They asked Jesus to send her away. Jesus appeared to support their indifference when he justified his non-response by stating that he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel, clearly, she was of another fold.
Again, the disciples did not step up to defend the woman in need. Maybe they even egged Jesus on. The woman persisted. She came forward and knelt before Jesus imploring him to help her and Jesus met her with a degrading slur, referring to the woman as a dog. The disciples would now certainly appeal to Jesus for mercy, right? Nothing. Nada. His apostles stayed silent, or worse they may have even started to have a good laugh at her expense.
The woman did not back down, she remained resilient in her effort because her daughter needed her help and she would not be turned away. She did not react or get defensive, but returned with her own retort, by stating, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” (Mt 15:27). Jesus then upended the whole scene and shared that the woman was the one who had great faith! A woman, a Gentile, not his disciples.
Those who have great faith are the ones who believe and act on that belief. Coming up with excuses to support our own indifference or rationalizing turning away people in need is not faith. Those who are aware of the need of another, even and especially when the task seems beyond them and is willing to take the risk, to make the effort to reach out and help, are those who show great faith. How would we have acted in this same scenario? I invite you to read Matthew’s account again in full a few times and imagine yourself in the scene.
With honesty, let us assess where we find ourselves in the scene? Are we aghast at Jesus’ initial responses, do we stay silent or speak up for the woman? Do we add our own insults? If we are going through a trial as did the woman, do we have her persistence, determination, and resilience, resisting to be turned away or lose our cool? Would we have this woman’s laser-focused unwillingness to give up?
Can we recall times when we did not recognize the need of others or respect the dignity of others because we perceived them as different or other than us? Were there times when we have or supported others who have loosed derogatory or dehumanizing speech or actions behind people’s backs or directly? Have we defended, justified, or rationalized our gossip, prejudices, or hurtful behavior?
If so, may we seek God’s forgiveness, and if possible reach out to apologize to those we have directly or indirectly hurt. May we commit today to follow the guidance that St. Paul offered to the members of his Church at Ephesus: “No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption. All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. [And] be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:29-32).
Jesus, please fill us with your love and mercy. Guide and give us the courage to resist hurting others with our thoughts, faces, words, actions, or inactions. Help us to be your light in the midst of the darkness of prejudice, hate, and racism by being more aware, understanding, patient, present, kind, encouraging, empowering, and loving today and each day. Help us to respect the dignity of all we encounter, especially, those we have considered different or have in the past kept at a distance, so that one day we too may hear the words you spoke to the Canaanite woman, “Great is your faith!”