I struggle with the story of Jesus encountering the Canaanite woman. I don’t know if it’s the lack of compassion in Jesus’ voice or the exploitation of power or the tone of condescension, but if this were the only story I knew of Jesus I’d be turned off.
When the Canaanite woman calls to Jesus, he doesn’t even acknowledge her. He doesn’t give her the time of day. But the woman is persistent. Her daughter is suffering, and this Jesus can help. So she keeps calling out. The disciples urge Jesus to make her leave. He seems to agree and says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, I did not come for you, so get lost.
She kneels and says simply, “Lord, help me.”
Jesus is unmoved. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But the woman fires right back at Jesus. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.”
This time Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith!” and grants her wish. Her daughter is healed.
Is the point to encourage great faith? Is it a lesson in perseverance? Is the point that Jesus has the power to heal us if we beg?
The gospel challenges us to be persons of strong faith who are persistent in prayer and courageous in asking for salvation. The encounter between Jesus and the woman reveals the unrestricted mercy of Jesus, the power of great faith and the universality of salvation for those who believe.
The Canaanite woman’s single-mindedness on behalf of her daughter challenges us to be just as single-minded about placing our requests before God and about our inclusive ministry with others. To reach out to others in mercy and compassion, no matter who they are.