She was a carer at the end of her tether, desperate. Her daughter probably had a mental illness, but we don’t have the diagnosis. We don’t even have their names. But we have all seen the pressure that carers often have to live with, whether the person they care for has physical or mental problems: not being able to get a full night’s sleep because you have to get up to see to the person who needs care; not being able to get out of the house, because someone has to be there all the time; watching someone you love in the grip of their illness and not being able to do a thing about it.
Jesus needed to get away. Maybe he wanted to spend some time teaching the disciples away from the crowds. Maybe he just needed a break, time to pray and relax. So he went to Tyre and Sidon. We know the area as Lebanon, north of Israel. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was already known in Tyre and Sidon, because people travelled from Lebanon to come and hear him. So it seems likely that the woman had already heard of Jesus. Any chance of some time off just went.
This was the Middle East 2,000 years ago. Men didn’t talk to strange women in the street, and that is still very much the culture in the Middle East. She was a Gentile, Jesus was a Jew. They didn’t mix. At all. So for her to confront him and call on him to help her, was going way way beyond convention. People just didn’t behave like that.
It was a funny conversation. When you just hear the story, it sounds as if Jesus was being quite cruel and unsympathetic, but we need to look deeper at what was going on. The woman asks for help, “Have mercy on me”, and she knows enough about who Jesus is to call him Lord and Son of David which was very much a Jewish term for the Messiah. So she knew that Jesus was someone pretty special.
Jesus doesn’t respond, doesn’t say a thing. And your first instinct is to think that he’s ignoring her because she is a Gentile woman. But there is something else going on here. Jesus is watching to see how everyone is going to behave. He is testing the woman, to see just how her faith is going to shape up. And he is testing the disciples, to see if they have begun to understand the first thing about him. So he remains quiet, to see what will happen next.
And the disciples chip in. “Send her away”, they say. So they are being very conventional, going along with the way their culture treated women. We know from all the stories that Jesus didn’t treat women in the same way as the general culture. He showed respect to women. They were close members of his inner circle. I wonder how Jesus felt when the disciples told him to send her away.
The next thing Jesus says is also part of the test, to see how people are going to react. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. In other words, he is reflecting back to the disciples what they are thinking, that he is there only for the Jews, and not for this Gentile woman. Jesus is trying to point out to them their lack of compassion.
But the woman comes and kneels before him and says, Lord, help me!” She is not asking for him to heal her daughter. She just needs help. She doesn’t know what to do any more. She is desperate.
Jesus develops his theme with the disciples, trying to show them how prejudiced they are. This is the point that he is trying to teach them. He is trying to show them what compassion means, what happens when you let prejudice get in the way.
The trouble with prejudice is that you can only see the prejudice in other people. You can never see it in yourself.
So Jesus says it’s not right to take bread for the children and give it to the dogs, which is a truly insulting thing to say. He is comparing the Gentile woman to a dog. But that of course, is what most Jewish men of his age believed, that Gentile women were no better than bitches. Jesus is going along with the disciples to see how far they would take it. He is testing the disciples and he is testing the woman.
The woman comes up with a superb answer. She says that even the dogs eat crumbs from the master’s table. She is not asking for the main course, just for a few crumbs of compassion. So she takes on the insult – which shows enormous humility – and she turns it round. And it shows enormous faith. Her care and concern for her daughter means that she still wants what he has to offer, despite the insult. She still knows that he can give her what she needs, that he is compassionate and that he cares for all people, whatever religion they were brought up in or what ethnic group they belong to.
Jesus was testing her, to see how much she really wanted his help for herself and her daughter, and whether her faith in him would enable her to be healed. She passes with flying colours. Jesus responds wholeheartedly, showing his appreciation for her faith.
And the disciples? How did they do in the test? We don’t hear from them again in this story. I wonder how it felt for them when Jesus didn’t send her away, the foreign woman, but praised her faith and healed her. What did it make them feel about their own faith, faith that didn’t care for people who were different? Jesus cared for them as much as for the woman. And in order to help them grow spiritually, he had to put them in a difficult position, by holding a mirror to them of their own prejudice.
It’s one of those stories that puts a mirror before our own souls, when Jesus challenges us with our own prejudices. Jesus cares about us, but he is under no illusions. What is it that he sees in us that we would rather not see?