The story of the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in this Sunday’s gospel at first looks as if Jesus is being misogynistic and racist. But a closer look reveals that Jesus is being anything but.
Jesus has come to this place on the northernmost borders of Israel for some quiet retreat time with his apostles. The woman crashes in uninvited into his personal space, and is shouting and demanding that Jesus responds to her need immediately. She is being rude, albeit obviously desperate. Jesus knows that he cannot respond to any and every demand on his time. He is human, after all, and needs downtime, like all of us. He has to set personal boundaries, again like all of us, to make sure he is not totally worn out all the time. He also believes that the first step in evangelizing the world is to evangelize his own people, the Jews, who have been prepared for millenia to receive the Messiah. Thus Jesus says, in answer to the disciples request to send the woman away, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.” It is for his disciples after his ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to go out and evangelize the world (cf Acts 1:8).
The disciples want Jesus to give the woman what she wants and send her away; she is being a nuisance. But Jesus will not be dismissive. He wants to take the measure of this woman. So he gives her audience, and meets her in a personal, face-to-face way, and allows her to stretch his boundaries in this particular case. He is touched by her reverence when she comes into his presence, kneeling before him and simply pleading “Lord help me.”
Modern history indicates all too well the animosities which exist among people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds. It was no difference in Jesus’ time. Jews and Canaanites didn’t get along any better than Jews and Samaritans. “Dogs!” they would call them. Jesus makes reference to the derogatory term in his dealings with the woman. Here we must go beyond the mere written word to imagine the way in which Jesus spoke the word. The woman must have sensed from Jesus’ tone that he was not putting her down but inviting her to a bit of verbal sparring. She understood and gave Jesus a great comeback statement. Jesus, who in earlier conversations quoted in the gospels enjoyed such verbal interaction, applauded the woman’s persistence, wit and faith by healing her daughter.