They call themselves “brain-tumor moms.” Three mothers in Massachusetts have banded together after receiving the heart-breaking news that their young daughters have brain cancer. Bent on advancing progress beyond outdated pediatric brain research, they have raised $250,000 in one year alone by walking, pleading and repeated asking, despite frequent rebuffs.
In today’s Gospel there is an equally determined mother, who pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter. It happens in the region of Tyre and Sidon. It is puzzling that he should go there, since the Matthean Jesus is intent on ministering only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt 10:6). Matthew has just recounted the execution of John the Baptist, preceded by the ominous notice that Jesus has also come to Herod’s attention (Mt 14:1-12). Most likely, Jesus goes to the coastal cities to get out of Herod’s jurisdiction and to lie low for a while. He needs time to grieve over his beloved teacher and relative. He can be anonymous in Tyre and Sidon and can regroup and strategize about when and how to continue his mission publicly.
But he is recognized. A Canaanite woman comes pleading for her daughter. By labeling the woman with the outmoded term Canaanite, Matthew makes her the archetypal enemy; one of those with whom Israel struggled for possession of the land. Oddly, this so-called enemy knows both the right Jewish prayer formulas and the proper messianic title for Jesus. Her impassioned plea, “Have mercy on me, Lord,” echoes Ps. 109:26 as well as the pleas of the blind men (Mt 9:27; 20:30, 31) and the father of the boy with epilepsy (Mt 17:15). In those instances, Jesus quickly heals. To the woman he makes no response at all. Never before has Jesus ignored someone who pleaded with him for compassion. The disciples also urge him to send her away. When he finally speaks with her, he insists he has nothing for her and that his mission is only to his own people.
If the woman had been seeking healing for herself, she might have given up, but there is nothing that fuels a mother’s audacity more than concern for her child’s well-being. She kneels before Jesus, a gesture of homage, but in so doing she also blocks his way, insisting that he act on her behalf. This time Jesus’ response is terribly insulting: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Some biblical scholars try to tone down the insult, understanding it as an endearing address to a pet. Others think Jesus is reciting a common saying of his day that reflected the animosity of Galileans toward the people on the coast, to whom their wheat would be exported, even in times of shortage (see 1 Kgs 5:11; Acts 12:20). Whatever the genesis of Jesus’ comment, calling the woman a dog is a gross insult.
Rather than turn away or return insult for insult, the mother redirects her rage, finding clever words and remaining respectful toward Jesus: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” With that, something shifts in Jesus. The woman stretches him to see her not as “other,” or as “enemy,” but as one of his own, one with whom he shares a common humanity, a common faith in God and a common desire for the well-being of children. He recognizes her great faith, having often chided his disciples for their “little faith” (Mt 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20). Beyond securing the healing of her daughter, the narrative depicts this woman sparking in Jesus the idea that his mission is for all people, a notion that will be fanned into flame by those who carry on his mission after his death (Mt 28:19).