17 Aug 2008
“She said, ‘Please Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.’” (Matt. 15:27) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
Everybody knows that Jesus was changed when He went out to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. However it happened, and we can’t be sure because each of the four Gospels tells it differently, but however it happened, Jesus had a profound revelatory experience. It was life changing. He hears the voice of God proclaiming Him “my beloved Son.” Jesus retreats to the desert wilderness for 40 days and there sorts out what this means. When He returns, Jesus is no longer the same. He’s a changed man, and from that moment He begins His public ministry of caring for God’s people and teaching them. I don’t think too many Christians have difficulties processing this story. The fact that Jesus is changed is made conventional by the fact that it happens due to the great wonder of almighty God’s pronouncement from the heavens. The change in Jesus’ life is initiated and validated by all the authority and glory of heaven.
Most all of the profound changes in Jesus’ life are accompanied by such grand announcements from God: His birth is announced by repeated angelic visitors; His baptism by the voice of God; the Transfiguration again by the voice of God saying almost the exact same words as at the Baptism; and His death and resurrection are again accompanied by angelic messengers just like at His birth. These changes in the life of Jesus are made Sunday-School-holy because they’re initiated and validated by God in heaven. As Christians, we’re not offended when Jesus is changed by God in heaven. It doesn’t diminish the person of Jesus when changes in His life require the powers of heaven as witness.
But Jesus is changed one other time without any heavenly fanfare: no divine voice, no angelic messengers – just the humble plea of a simple, unnamed Canaanite woman. And what makes this possibly even more disturbing is that Jesus seems to be changed grudgingly by this unexpected and unwanted encounter with a terribly distraught mother. He even argues against the change. Jesus, the Saviour sent by God to the weak and humble, protests the change. And this can make the believer nervous. If we read the story without preconditions of what we think it should say about Jesus, it can be a bit unsettling. This doesn’t seem to fit-in with the neat and tidy image we cultivate around Jesus. We seem to need to protect Jesus from appearing too human at times. But there it is in the Bible, this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. It’s made sacred because it’s part of Holy Scripture, and it’s made human because His reaction is so unvarnished, and dare we say flawed.
Up until this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has not conversed directly with any woman. Matthew’s is a Gospel written for a predominantly conservative audience that could be easily offended by such an occurrence. Women were socially isolated in public, not to mention a foreign woman. And nowhere else in the Gospel does Jesus ever ignore a person’s plea. The Canaanite woman beseeches Jesus’ help. “Have pit on my Lord,” she cries, “My daughter is tormented.” Jesus ignores her. The disciples ask Jesus to do something because of the woman’s persistence, and the only answer they get is that Jesus is sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman continues with her pleas. Exasperated, Jesus bluntly turns to her and tersely says, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” There is simply no way to mitigate the coarseness of these words. They are harsh and exclusionary. Jesus will not help her because she is a woman not of His people. Jesus understands His mission and ministry since His baptism as sent to the people of Israel. The rest of the world is not and cannot be His concern.
Then Jesus meets this woman. The woman’s, the foreigner’s word “Please” reaches out to Him. He went 40 days out into the desert after the change at His baptism to sort through things. As Jesus is hit by the desperation of this person’s words, as He looks into this person’s eyes, I think He was surprised by His second call to ministry. He begins to not see a woman, to not see a foreigner, but to see a human being. The Canaanite mother, begging at the feet of Jesus on behalf of her tormented daughter, is the antithesis of awe-inspiring divine voices and heavenly messengers, but the Canaanite woman changes Jesus nonetheless. The Canaanite woman inspires Jesus to look beyond the traditional understanding of the Messiah as one sent only to Israel. The Canaanite woman in the sincerity of her heart convinces Jesus that He brings God into the world not as Jewish, but as human. Jesus gives the woman the healing she asks for, but the far greater mystery is the change that she gives to Jesus. As God’s voice at Jesus’ baptism awoke something in Him, so did this woman’s voice change Jesus.
Soon the Jewish leaders will ask Jesus for a sign, a heavenly sign, maybe something like the voice from heaven at His baptism. Instead, Jesus says the only sign will be that of Jonah, the prophet sent to a foreign land, the prophet who did not care about the people of Assyria nor for that fact that they may all suffer and die, the prophet who was eventually changed by the revelation that all people are dear to God. Jesus’ moment of Jonah-like change comes at the instigation of the Canaanite woman. His words and ministry to all people as loved by God will now be the only sign offered by Jesus. As with Christ, so with Christians. This is a very human Jesus today, and this can make us nervous because this is when He is most like us. There’s less squirm room to say it’s too hard to be like Him, to change when confronted with new challenges and expectations. Even for Jesus there was the astonishment of new encounters with God, how much more so then for us? Let us pray that we be open to God’s continuing presence around us, and let us pray in the name of a very human Jesus for the faith to follow where God leads. In His name we pray. Amen. (+)