In today’s Gospel Jesus has a disturbing encounter with a Canaanite woman. She asks for his help, but he rebuffs her. It is only when she argues her case that he blesses her and gives her what she wants.
As we hear his harsh words “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” we wonder what has gotten into him. It certainly doesn’t sound like that warm and comforting shepherd, nor that gentle teacher with his Sermon on the Mount. What has caused him to react this way and say these cruel words to a woman in need? A clue may be in the brief sentence that places Jesus geographically: “Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.”
He has left his home turf, Jewish territory, because he has just gotten into an argument – once again – with the religious leadership, and has been hustled out of town by the disciples, who know that Jesus has – once again – said that the leaders were wrong in their teachings. And where does he go? To a border town in the region between the nation of Israel and the nation of the Canaanites. The Canaanites, who were the bitter enemies of the Israelites for generations upon generations. It says something about how risky Jesus’ situation was back in Gennesaret that a border area, a sort of demilitarized zone, is now safer for him than a Jewish village near where he grew up.
So Jesus is now on the border, and who approaches him but someone from the so-called enemy camp. A woman, alone.
Step back a minute and imagine a soldier on the Afghan-Pakistani border, a soldier who’s been under fire for many days, a soldier who lost friends to suicide bombers who looked like women and like children, and you can imagine what is going through the minds of Jesus and his disciples when this strange woman approaches. All their warning signals in their heads are beeping “Alert, alert! Possible high risk approaching!”
And remember that in Jesus’ time, women don’t travel alone, and Canaanites don’t talk to Israelites, and they certainly don’t ask for help from them.
No, it is no wonder that Jesus is careful.
And she’s asking for help from Jesus. That’s a surprise. This woman on the border, straddling two enemy lands, alone, not a Jew but a Canaanite, asking for help from this Israelite rabbi. It makes no sense, but then, there are many things in the strange world of the border that make no sense.
Living on the border, you take risks, because it is the land where life itself is a risk. You never know when another battle will start up, you never know when someone is going to try to take your land or your sheep or your goats or your child.
So you take risks when it is necessary, and for this woman, it is necessary. Her daughter is ill, tormented by a demon. Somehow, the word has leaked through the border that there is a Jewish rabbi who works wonders. He can heal. And now she has heard he is nearby. She has no husband to go for her – perhaps her husband has been killed in the border skirmishes – so she goes herself.
She goes even though she knows this rabbi will not want to come near her, that in his eyes she will be unclean, that he might even say no, because she is a Canaanite. She goes despite all this, because on the border, you take risks that people who live in safe places would not. On the border, life itself is a risk.
She steps into that demilitarized zone that straddles the two lands and cries out to him for help. She makes her petition. He hears her, but as she expected, he ignores her. Another woman, in another place, might be discouraged by this and turn back, but the woman who has lost all – a husband, her daughter’s sanity – takes the risk because she has no other option. She keeps crying out. And the disciples, nervous and worried, say to Jesus, “Can’t you send her away? We don’t want any attention called to us in this place, this risky border.”
Jesus sighs – must he always do these things himself? – and calls to her from a safe distance. “I haven’t been sent here to help Canaanites. My mission is to find the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, “Sorry, you’re not my problem.”
But she refuses to take no for an answer. She kneels smack dab in front of him and says, “Help me.”
When you’re on the border of warring nations or on the border of your child’s sanity, you take risks.
And now he’s beyond uncomfortable, he’s angry. How dare this Canaanite stranger, this woman, kneel in front of him in her insistence. So he snaps at her, saying she is trying to steal what belongs to his own people, his own people, as a dog would steal human food if it were left on the table.
Suddenly she is angry, too. What does she have to lose? He has already said no. So she throws his comment back in his face. “I may be a dog to you, but even dogs get to lick up a few crumbs that fall from the table.”
Has she gone too far? Will he strike her dead for her impertinence? Has she risked too much?
He takes a quick step back, as if he had been slapped. He stands there, stock still, breathing hard. A slow smile comes upon his face, as if he has suddenly realized something in this border spot, this place of conflict and argument.
All the times that Jesus has bested the Pharisees and the Sadducees in argument, never once being tricked by them, never once having to admit that they were right and he was wrong, and now here, in this dusty deserted place, there is someone who has made a point he cannot refute.
She is right. Her risk was worth taking. She has taught him something about his mission that he had somehow missed.
It’s not just about the house of Israel. There is a larger world at stake. His mission is not only Israel, it is anyone who can understand and feel the power and love of the one true God.
Who knows how this woman has come to understand who he is, who God is? But all that matters is her faith in him, in his ability to help her daughter. And in the split second that it takes him to look down at her, kneeling in the dust, and to smile, her daughter is healed.
And as her daughter is transformed, he too is transformed. He blesses the woman and praises her faith, and he is blessed with the knowledge that his mission – to heal the tenuous relationship between God and humanity – is meant to be more expansive than simply fixing the wayward Israelites. It can be, it should be, the world.
He looks over the border, over into Canaan. He remembers how his ancient ancestors were first given the land of Canaan, as a reward for the 40 years of risk crossing from Egypt to a home of their own. He muses on how many borders those forebears risked crossing over to get to that final place. They crossed borders, each time a risk, because God was doing great work in them. He now is at the border. He now is doing great work. And the work grows, and he smiles even though he knows that this new and expanded mission will increase the risk for him by alienating both the religious leadership of Israel and the Roman empire.
But it is a risk well worth it, though. All because of one intense, argumentative, risk-taking woman who dared to cross over the border to talk to a man who was more than a man, because the need was great and, for her, the risk was worth it.
What border will you cross today, or tomorrow? What will you risk, as the woman risked, as Jesus himself risked, to reach out to the God who created us and loved us so much that he exposed his own son to unimaginable risk? You know the risk is worth.
Step away from your comfortable safe place. Step into the borderlands, and ask God what risk you should take today.