I don’t usually publish my sermons until after I have preached them, but am making an exception on this occasion, to participate in communal sermon preparation.
Why does Jesus ignore the Canaanite woman?
Isn’t that just unkind? Certainly, rude? Not at all Christian?
Here’s my best guess, and then I’ll tell you why. Jesus was looking at his disciples, to see what they would do.
And what they do is urge him to send her away, to put an end to her disturbing them. It was a little annoying at first, then pushed its way through being frankly embarrassing, until at last they’ve had enough. Have mercy on us, Lord!
That’s what they did, but not what I think Jesus had hoped that they would do.
Let’s consider the context. Not long ago, they had fed a multitude with a small boy’s packed lunch. Jesus had taken what he had been given, and, having given thanks for it, told the disciples to give it away. And the more they gave it away, the further it went, until there was more than enough.
And then there followed that whole strange story about Jesus walking on the water, a disclosure-story where the gravity-defying penny that has been hanging over the disciples’ heads finally drops and they realise than in the person of Jesus, the God of their fathers is walking among them.
And that is followed by a confrontation with some Pharisees over what it means to keep the Law, where Jesus says, how is it that you have so fundamentally missed the point of your calling?
What calling? The call to live within the covenant that the Lord had made with Abram, saying, ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Genesis 12:2, 3).
In other words, to be a people who take the blessing God has given them and to give it away in order that everyone else gets to share—to enter-into—the blessing.
But the Pharisees don’t even want to share that blessing with their own parents, let alone with people they saw as undeserving.
By the way, Yahweh is faithful to his character even when his people are not. He keeps blessing his people, in order that through them all the families of the earth shall be blessed, even when they keep the blessing to themselves. Even when they keep the blessing to themselves so long that they come to believe that they are more blessed because they are more deserving. Even when they come to believe that they are so more deserving than all the other families that they come to see those people as dogs. But that faithfulness includes humbling his people, and calling them back to him. Again and again.
So to recap: Jesus has had his disciples take part in a practical exercise of giving blessing away; has shown himself to be the embodiment—we use the term ‘incarnation’—of Yahweh; and has told a group of people who are trying to be in right relationship with God by keeping blessing to themselves that they have missed the point…
…and now the disciples are confronted with the perfect opportunity to join the dots together and jump at the chance to be used by God to bring blessing to this family.
I mean you couldn’t make it up. It is an open goal right in front of them, and all one of them needs to do is tap the ball home.
Send her away, Lord!
It is painfully clear that the disciples haven’t got it (yet). So Jesus presses his point: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Note that he still isn’t answering the woman. This is his response to the disciples’ request that he send her away. ‘I wasn’t sent to send anyone away; I was sent to find the lost sheep of Israel.’ To restore a people who would be a blessing to others. I was sent to call you, disciples. And you are as wayward as any sheep.
They still don’t get it. And at this point, the woman speaks up again, saying simply, ‘Lord, help me.’ And the question is not one of whether Jesus is willing to help her, but one of how he wants to see her helped.
He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
Now, bear in mind that this is a time long before Pedigree Chum, long before anyone thought to market food as dog food. This is a time when dogs would eat whatever was set aside for them from what the family members were eating. So why is it not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?
Because if you do the children won’t have enough to eat? No.
It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs because if the adult does that, the children will never learn that the dog needs to have a share in the food.
And, of course, the dog itself will be fine, for as long as the adult is around. But if the adult dies and the children have not learnt to share their food with the dog, the dog—or its pups—will die too.
It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs because if the adult does that, the children will grow up so self-centred they think only of themselves. That isn’t fair on the children—and it isn’t fair on anyone else. It would be a parenting fail.
If Jesus shows mercy on this woman and the disciples have not learnt to show mercy on women like her, then that is great for as long as Jesus is around, but it doesn’t fulfil the call on the people of Israel that he was sent to restore.
‘Yes, Lord,’ the woman said. ‘But your disciples are painfully slow. And I need a miracle now. And even if the family forgets to feed their dog, it at least gets to lick up the crumbs that fall from the table. So I’m just going to lie down here at your feet and hope.’
And for that, Jesus changes his mind. (Why? Because Jesus is God, and we read in the Bible that God often changes his mind about what he intends to do, in conversation with people, in response to their response. It’s almost as if God were looking for partners to work with…) Jesus is prepared to risk the disciples not getting it, on this occasion, because to the woman’s need—to which they have failed to respond—is now added her insight—which they have failed to grasp for themselves.
Come on, boys!
And here’s the good news: they do get it, eventually. Later, after Jesus has died and been raised to life and ascended into heaven, Peter has a vision all about dietary laws, followed by an invitation to go to the house of a Roman centurion. And if he experienced déjà vu, that would be because of the debate over food and defilement that preceded meeting a Canaanite woman. Peter goes, and the Gentiles enter-into the blessing of being included within the people of God (Acts 10). And the rest, as they say, is history.
We don’t know what happens to the woman, how her story continues to unfold. We don’t know how fully she took up the invitation to join God’s people. But we can say that she is blessed and that her understanding of being blessed extends blessing to others—to the slow disciples; in time, to the Gentiles.
So, what about us? There are people living on my street, living on your street, who are hoping for a miracle. Lives waiting to be touched by blessing that undoes whatever curse they may find themselves under. The chances are, they are the neighbours you and I find most annoying, the ones we keep asking Jesus to remove. I think of my immediate next-door-neighbour, who pretty much keeps himself to himself, except for the time he swung a punch at me on my doorstep. I have no idea how to reach out to him with blessing, but I’m pretty sure it won’t happen until I want him to be blessed more than I want him to go away.
And so I find myself in exactly the same place as Jesus’ first disciples. Needing to be humbled, needing to repent. But also in the presence of God-with-us, the one whose character is compassion and mercy—towards me and those who I find difficult—who is faithful forever, who is slow to express anger at my hard-heartedness and quick to respond to my desire to be more like him, but to whom I will one day need to give account. And that is not always a comfortable place to be. But there is no better place, no better person to follow.
Allow me to end where I began. Why does Jesus ignore the Canaanite woman?
Next time you hear someone ask, Why does God ignore this affliction, that loss, in my life? why not ask Jesus, How might we bring blessing to this person, Lord?
You never know what might happen.