Though Matthew stresses that the primary mission of Jesus was to the “house of Israel,” in today’s Gospel a non-Jewish woman draws him to a more universalistic vision. Narrated by both Mark (7:24-30) and Matthew, this story of courageous faith and boundary-crossing challenges the church today.
The woman is a Canaanite (a term that evokes Israel’s ancient enemies), who comes alone to Jesus, crying, “Have pity [better, “mercy”] on me Lord, Son of David.” Her request suggests that she had heard of his healing power. Since illness was thought to arise from demonic attack, she begs release and healing for her daughter. Jesus meets her request with stony silence, and the disciples say, “Get rid of her, for she keeps yelling at us.” Again Jesus rebuffs her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In no other miracle story has a petitioner been treated so harshly.
The narrative changes when the woman, doubly an outsider because she is a Gentile and is alone in public, challenges this rebuff by “worshiping” Jesus (something no disciple does prior to the resurrection) and uttering the simple prayer, “Lord, help me.” Again there comes a rebuff from Jesus, harsher than the earlier two: “It is not right to take the food of children [Jews] and give it to dogs” [Gentiles]. Not to be put off, the woman turns Jesus’ words back on him: “Please, Lord,” jokingly calling herself a “puppy,” and asks for the crumbs that fall from the table. In a startling turn of events, Jesus replies: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Her daughter is healed at that moment.
Two interpretations have accompanied this narrative through history. Building on the first reading, which foresees that the Gentiles will come to Israel’s God to form a house of prayer for all nations, the Canaanite woman is a symbol of those nations that will hear the message of the Gospel. The courageous faith of the woman is a second major theme. But neither of these captures the parabolic surprise of the narrative. The woman’s brash courage actually “converts” Jesus. Twice in Matthew Jesus has limited his mission to the sons and daughters of Israel (Mt. 10:5-6 and 15:24). Yet here he crosses this self-imposed boundary to bring merciful healing to a Gentile. The woman brings him to the full implications of his mission.
Today the deepest meaning of the Gospel is often disclosed by the courage of the “outsider,” who is driven by loving concern for innocent victims of disease or injustice. Often they have been met by stony silence or rude rebuff by Jesus’ followers. The “great faith” of this mother who breaks all boundaries out of love is a model and challenge for our time.