Jesus left Gennesaret and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Then out came a Canaanite woman from that district and started shouting, ‘Sir, Son of David, take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ But he answered her not a word. And his disciples went and pleaded with him. ‘Give her what she wants,’ they said ‘because she is shouting after us.’ He said in reply, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ But the woman had come up and was kneeling at his feet. ‘Lord,’ she said ‘help me.’ He replied, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.’ She retorted, ‘Ah yes, sir; but even house-dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.’ And from that moment her daughter was well again.
When Jesus engages with someone in need, he draws out of them a revelation of some aspect of their personality and evidence of their need. In this way every encounter becomes a teaching situation for the disciples as well as the person involved.
Jesus’ first response to the Canaanite woman appeared to be a refusal of her request, but she demonstrated an assertive persistence which would have been hard for any woman to do publicly in those times. Her persistence and desperation were evidence of her deep love for her daughter, as was the risk she took in engaging in dialogue with Jesus on equal terms.
In effect the Canaanite woman said to Jesus: “What I am asking is nothing to you but everything to me”. Jesus could have stayed with his position that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” but her need and her desperation gave him the opportunity to transcend the ethnic barriers of his time (a lesson in itself) and to respond with generosity.
We are sometimes exhorted to “give until it hurts” to help those in need. In this episode the Canaanite woman provides a different perspective on generosity. We have so many things that we can give others which cost us almost nothing, and yet may be everything to them – praise for person anxious about their work; a hug for a scared child; our presence at an event; support for a grieving person; engaging in conversation with a newly arrived migrant; even the purchase of a chocolate bar from a child who is fundraising.
Going past our prejudices and suspicions to give a coin to a person with a homeless sign on our streets can be a personal “generosity test” for us. We are not used to people begging, and they are now appearing in our cities with increasing frequency. Are they the Canaanite women of our times, seeking something which is not much to us but everything to them?
Who are the Canaanite women in our lives?