An uncomfortable story
This story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman has a high “squirm factor.” First of all, there is this pushy woman who keeps nattering relentlessly at Jesus. And then there is Jesus, who is somewhat disappointing in his lack of compassion and his harsh words.
I prefer a Jesus who comforts this desperate mother. I want a Jesus who knows her pain before she speaks it. I long for a Jesus who chastises his mouthy disciples. But instead, we encounter a Jesus who appears first un-responsive and then verbally insulting.
The woman in this story is nameless in the Bible but some ancient religious writings refer to her as “Justa.” I like naming her because, despite her pushiness, I admire her deep love for her daughter, her courage, and her perseverance. She merits the dignity of a name. And I like the inherent connection with “justice.”
As we ponder Justa, we discover a woman who overcomes significant barriers:
The barrier of passive acceptance – she does not give up when local healing resources in her hometown fail.
The barrier of the unknown – she seeks Jesus the healer in blind faith.
The barrier of ethnicity – the Jews annihilated the Canaanites so there is a long history of tension, yet she, a Canaanite, seeks a Jew for healing.
The barrier of isolation – she has no one to support her on this venture.
The barrier of cultural gender roles – she persists even though, as a woman, it is not her place to approach, let alone argue with, men.
The barrier of being outnumbered – Jesus and all his disciples versus “Justa woman.”
The barrier of the silent treatment – Jesus ignores her first request.
The barrier of rejection – Jesus says he came for Israel, not her people.
The barrier of insult – Jesus draws an analogy of a dog getting scraps.
Many of us have tried to excuse Jesus’ words and actions by offering rationale such as “he was testing her faith” or “it was not God’s timing.” But those feel like fruitless efforts at a cover-up. What if, instead, this story offers a picture for us of the human Jesus?
Could this be the caregiver Jesus who is burnt out from being around needy people 24/7 and who is running on empty? (The Mark version of the story says he did not want anyone to know he was there.) If so, this is a Jesus many of us can relate to.
But the story does not end with Jesus’ weariness. Rather, it evolves in a remarkable way. Jesus allows Justa’s words to penetrate. Despite his state, Jesus opens himself to her and she shifts him onto a new track. Her energy and persistence move in the opposite direction of Jesus’ growing weariness. He catches her forward momentum and lets her energy turn and propel him. What a powerful image!
This is an incredible model and lesson for us on several levels.
First, it says that Jesus was not concerned about saving face but about seeking truth and justice. He was willing to bend when legitimately challenged. Second, he modelled flexibility for all of us. It is a warning not to get embedded in our ruts but to remain open to new insights. Third, he helps us see that “the least of these” can be our teachers. And fourth, Jesus offers us a snapshot of God, who is willing to listen and be moved by our persistent love.
Maybe the squirm factor in this story is not about Jesus or Justa after all, but rather about what they offer to teach us.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from the region came out and st
arted shouting,“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (NRSV)