This week’s Gospel shows a side of Jesus that seems out of character for the one who has come to bring good news. Initially, Jesus simply ignores the Canaanite woman and her request. Then he points out to his disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The conversation appears to deteriorate when Jesus refers to the Canaanites as dogs. The starkness of this exchange offends contemporary sensibilities.
Two items in the story are worth some reflection. First, what would be an appropriate response to a request by a foreigner? Secondly, what is special about the notion of faith in this Gospel story?
A foreigner by definition is a person outside of a native group. Jesus’ claim that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel is in accord with the standard understanding of Israel as the chosen people. He also seems to claim that he does not have authority to heal the girl as he comprehends the confines of the mission given to him by the Father. In other words, the woman is not part of the chosen people and falls outside of his mission. Consequently, Jesus uses what we could consider an ethnic slur. The logic of his argument is impeccable. The result is all sorts of rude language about dogs and scraps at table.
The woman persists by admitting that she is a “dog.” She also claims that even dogs can lay claim to scraps that fall from a table. All she is asking is the benefit of a scrap from the table that Jesus wants to set before the Jewish people in his public ministry.
After she acknowledges that she is a dog, she still persists because she has a daughter who is ill. Any good mother will protect her child who needs help. Suddenly, the issue is no longer about nationalities or assigned missions, but rather about illness and the mother/child relationship. As a mother, she knows that Jesus can heal her daughter, and she will grasp any means to achieve this end. Now, the matter becomes an issue of faith; this same faith is lacking among the lost sheep of Israel.
What was initially a rebuke becomes a source of praise. Jesus says to her in heartfelt words, “O woman great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Throughout the Gospels Jesus seeks those who profess faith in him and the work the Father has sent him to accomplish. The Israelite people of his time could not bring themselves to believe his message. As a result, he discovers the faith he is looking for among foreign peoples. In such faith, his message is open to any believer of whatever background. In other words, the Gospel is universal and open to all peoples.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.