Jesus left Gennesaret and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Then out came a Canaanite woman from that district and started shouting, ‘Sir, Son of David, take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ But he answered her not a word. And his disciples went and pleaded with him. ‘Give her what she wants,’ they said ‘because she is shouting after us.’ He said in reply, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ But the woman had come up and was kneeling at his feet. ‘Lord,’ she said ‘help me.’ He replied, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.’ She retorted, ‘Ah yes, sir; but even house-dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.’ And from that moment her daughter was well again.
One of the buzz words of our time and culture is inclusiveness. We are encouraged to be tolerant of difference. We are taught not to discriminate against others on grounds of race or creed or colour. This is honourable when it involves true justice and mutual respect. It is not a Christian approach to allow oneself to be made a fool of or to allow our hospitality to be abused. There is a foolish approach to life that teaches that nobody is to be made feel left out even when that is what they choose. Nobody is made feel a failure so low standards or no standards are set. Everyone is made feel special which means that no one is special. Sometimes all this leads to a lowest common denominator approach. Some people fail to respect their own heritage or simply abandon it and end up losing respect for themselves and inevitably, for others too. There are always conditions for belonging. There are always responsibilities as well as rights and privileges. This teaching of inclusiveness based on common standards fits in well with the call of Isaiah for the people of God to practice justice, to act with integrity, to keep the Sabbath. God’s house is to be a house of prayer. It is to be a house for all peoples. Those who keep the covenant with God and those who worship regularly are to be welcomed as ‘Pobal Dé’ the people of God. Those foreigners who serve God, who love God’s name, who cling to the covenant with God and who do not profane the Sabbath are to be included. They will, Isaiah prophecies, be brought to the holy mountain of God. They will be made joyful in God’s house of prayer. Their sacrifice and offering will be accepted. This was a difficult teaching for those who considered themselves the chosen people. Those who consider themselves chosen, specially selected for privilege, are generally not easy people to live with. They tend to be exclusive rather than inclusive. They consider those who do not conform to their patterns, the ‘others’ as unworthy. This was the problem and the attitude that Jesus sets out to expose and to disarm in today’s Gospel. Matthew sets the scene by having Jesus go to the region of two towns of notorious reputation, Tyre and Sidon. He piles on the unworthiness and uncleanness of the encounter by having Jesus engage with a woman, a Canaanite woman. The woman shouts after Jesus, begging him to heal her daughter, begging Jesus’ pity. She calls him ‘Sir’ and ‘Son of David’ recognising his privileged position and his Jewishness. Jesus remains silent at first. The disciples add to the pressure on Jesus by asking him to accede to the demands of the woman who has undoubtedly become an embarrassment by now. Jesus replies that his racial kin, the lost sheep of the House of Israel have first call on his ministry. The woman persists. She comes up and kneels humbly and with deference at his feet. She now calls Jesus ‘Lord’ and she asks simply, ‘Lord, help me’. Jesus replies using what may have been a common saying or proverb of his time. It seems a harsh saying. Jesus is testing her faith perhaps. The saying, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house dogs’, betrays the contempt the chosen people had for outsiders. Jesus is impressed only by faith and in the woman’s clever reply and in her humility and persistence he finds the disposition and spirit that he seeks. He replies, ‘Woman you have great faith. Let your wish be granted’.