Jesus moves on from Gennesaret to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus had challenged a group of Pharisees about what it is that renders a person “pure” in God’s eyes. Purity springs from an integrity within the person, rather than following scrupulously a book of what are often man-made rules that only burden people.
Jesus now takes his distance from these Pharisees and moves away into a territory dominated by people the Jews would have considered pagans. On this journey, a Canaanite women appears on his path and asks him to have pity on her as her daughter was tormented by a devil.
A curious dialogue begins. In the first instance, Jesus simply ignores the women’s request and says nothing. His disciples then ask Jesus to intervene, not because of the merit of the woman’s request but because her insistence had begun to annoy them.
Then comes the second response of Jesus. He seemed to be saying that he was not going to help the women, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. The woman however insists. She throws herself at the feet of Jesus and makes what seems one simple, yet desperate final appeal: “Lord, help me”.
The response of Jesus is even stranger. He says, “it is not fair to take the nourishment meant for the children of Israel and throw it to the house dogs”. The woman remains undeterred. She reminds Jesus that the house dogs get the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.
This pagan woman continued to see something special in Jesus. She never flinched in her great trust in his ability to do something for her daughter that no other authority had been able to do. In a complex dialogue, Jesus has drawn out from this woman an example of great faith. She may belong to what was considered popularly as a pagan people, but she shows a deep, mature, and determined faith. Jesus tells her that because of that faith her request had been granted.
Faith is not always easy. We would like a God who would simply respond and accept our requests. We resent delay and we give up when we encounter what seems to us rejection. Faith tests us. What seemed to be a hard and cold questioning by Jesus and even rebuttal of this woman’s request, is Jesus’ way to make us examine our attitudes.
In his complex encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus shows us that just as purity of heart is about human integrity rather than ticking boxes of rules, goodness can be found in remarkable ways among people that we are tempted to rule out of discussion through our narrow categories. Jesus uses his encounter with this pagan woman to teach us that true faith and human goodness can be found where we in our own narrowness decide not to expect it.
Right throughout the history of the Church, we have seen believers build barriers of narrowness and bitterness when they think they are simply being zealous in defending the message of Jesus. The teaching of Jesus can never envisage intolerance or bigotry toward people we consider different. The truth must always be sought in love.
The Church of Jesus Christ must be a church where people are welcomed, respected, and cherished even in their difference. Hatred and intolerance can never foster goodness and love. Hate language can never be reconciled with the teaching of Jesus. When believers and indeed Church communities become narrow-minded and judgemental, they leave people marginalized and unloved with their hope blunted and their dignity broken.
In some circles today there is a growing polarization within our Church. There are those who feel that they can be zealously defending the Church while they are intolerant and disrespectful to those with whom they disagree.
In wider circles, there are examples of growing racism and intolerant language here in our own country. I am scared when I hear stories of racist intolerance by groups of young people. They may not realize how damaging their behavior is, but racist language is never fun. Racist intolerance is always dangerous language and is always a one-way street towards negativity and disrespect. Intolerance is always an affront to the dignity of those who are its objects.
Where in its history intolerance had spread within the Church, these have not been moments of nobility in Church history but the opposite. Wherever intolerance has entered into a dominant role in society, society has been impoverished and undermined. Jesus encounters this Canaanite woman with whom the rules would have said he should not even speak with. She returns home hope-filled and her whole life and family renewed. Any encounter with Jesus and his Church must have the same hope-filled effect.