Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
If we are to put ourselves in the place of Jesus and his disciples, St. Matthew 15:21-31 places a woman from another community/caste/religion in front of us this lent. It is not a familiar and a comfortable scene and neither was it for Jesus’ disciples and even for him. The disciples are almost irritated with the presence of the Canaanite woman and that is why they ask Jesus to send her away. They are disturbed by her shouting. Jesus makes a matter of fact statement when he says that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” But the woman comes closer and kneels and seeks help. Jesus explains the situation to her and says that he cannot help her because it will not be fair to take the food of the children and throw to the dogs. This is when there is an unexpected twist to the proceedings. The woman says that even the dogs eat the crumbs that have fallen from the table. Jesus stops what he is doing and says “Great is your faith. Let it be done to you as you wish.”
This encounter of Jesus and the Canaanite woman speaks volumes to us during lent. We must also appreciate the wisdom of the church leaders to place this reading in churches during lent. The woman’s daughter is tormented by a demon and that is why she has come to Jesus. The problem though here is that the Jews and the Canaanites do not have that good a relationship. One could definitely classify them as enemies with a history of enmity. This is why the disciples become uncomfortable. They want the woman to go away but they cannot beat her or push her away because they cannot behave like others. They are part of the Jesus movement. So they put the burden on to Jesus. Jesus takes it up.
One must realize that our surroundings always affect us to a certain extent. We speak based on our surroundings. Jesus therefore is quite cold when he mentions to the woman and anyone else who would have been there that he has come for certain people only. We should introspect during lent and realize that we too prefer to put our burdens on to Jesus and withdraw from any worthwhile thing that we are supposed to do during lent and even otherwise. In this sense we as the church sometimes withdraw from our responsibilities and leave Jesus to fend for himself forgetting that both the bride and the bride groom form the family/church. It is not that he can’t. But who and what are we then? Jesus though stays just there and has a dialogue with the woman. He says that it is not fair for him to look at the sufferings of others as then his own community would suffer. How could he do this? But this is when the woman shows a way forward. We do not come together as communities or do not help those outside our community because we reach a road block and feel we cannot help even though some part of us wants to! The Canaanite woman offers a solution. She does not want Jesus to stop helping his community but asks for the crumbs, the fringe and blessings on the side path which his community will anyway not use. The woman opens up a vista of ministry for Jesus where his ministry gets expanded to the least and the last of communities other than his.
We as the church should open our eyes to see the Canaanite woman in our midst so that our ministry will have a scope to widen inside and outside the walls of our church. During lent it will help to look around in our church and see who is standing next to us. Are we only seeing familiar and comfortable faces? Then we are reflecting the disciples. But can we see other faces in our midst? Then we will be able to reflect Jesus in our lives. All of us represent the church. We are the church. The keys to the doors of the church are with us. During lent, can we open the doors so that others can also come in. If Jesus told the woman that her faith was great, he is also telling the same thing today. Who are we to keep others away from the grace and mercy of God? Lent should be a time when we stop saying “Sending her away” like the disciples. Instead we must be able to look at others and say “Great is your faith. Let it be done to you as you wish.” Amen.