She had no business bothering Jesus. She was a Gentile, and a woman. She was loud – and pushy: Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
As Mark tells this story, he names the woman as Syro-Phoenician – from the nearby coastal region called Phoenicia, part of the province of Syria. But Matthew uses an archaic term, “Canaanite.” There was no Canaan in Jesus’ time, and hadn’t been for centuries. Canaan was the name of the Promised Land that God promised to give the Israelites, the Promised Land Moses led them toward and Joshua led them into - amid much slaughter of local populations and suppression of their religions and customs, as our Bible tells the tale. Some Canaanites may have gone north into Phoenicia when the Hebrews came into their territory. This is the history Matthew stirs up, linking her with those long-ago enemies of Israel. She has no status with the Jews, no connection. So what is she doing calling Jesus by the Messianic title, “Son of David,” and asking for his help?
Once again we find an outlier naming Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah, while the people around him don’t seem to get it. This unnamed mother stands with the Roman centurion and the Samaritan woman at the well and blind Bartimaeus. She gets who Jesus is, and knows he can help her little girl.
But Jesus does not seem to “get” her. He dismisses her brusquely, refusing to hear her request (more on that tomorrow...). Though in this story he is the foreigner – he is in her territory, after all – he notes the ethnic and religious difference and seems disinclined to cross that line. Given that he has just declared that we should be judged by what comes from within us, not the external, he seems quick to categorize her and her daughter as “not his problem.”
We live in a world full of children who are not our problem – unless we open our eyes and claim them. Anti-immigration protesters, even some wearing crosses, carry signs saying, “Not our children. Not our problem.” Some people condemn “those Muslim terrorists” or “that bully Israel” or “those corrupt African politicians,” as though they are then free to wash their hands of the world’s problems. Some say, “We have hunger right here. We should feed our own.”
But some go out to where the Other lives and bring food, education, medical care and friendship. My friend Tom Furrer, an Episcopal priest in Connecticut, travels every year to northern Nigeria, where several churches and other partners have built a clinic. One year they saw nearly 7,000 patients in two weeks – including many Muslims in a region where Christian-Muslim violence is severe (this is the area where Boko Haran operates.) Tom says that one of their goals is to show love and respect to Muslims “and so to demonstrate an alternative narrative to the one of the terrorists now plaguing this country.” More than one Muslim treated at the FaithCare mission said, “I had heard that Christians hate us. Now I see that is not true.”
Do you hear someone calling your name, asking for help? Maybe someone you don’t want to see? What if you engage?
This outlier woman had something to give Jesus – and eventually he came to be open to what she offered. The most amazing things can happen when we turn and see what loud, pushy people want.