Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 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.” 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.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:21-28

This story begins by telling us that Jesus traveled to the district of Tyre and Sidon. These coastal cities were on the Mediterranean, across the far northwestern border of Israel. They weren’t “on the way” to anywhere else. We can only assume that he went there on purpose.

As he arrives he is met by a Canaanite woman. No surprise there. If you are traveling south from Oklahoma and cross the Red River you are very likely to run into a Texan. That is what borders are intended to do – they define “us” and “them” as they divide “us” from “them.” Jesus crossed over into “their” territory.

This same story also appears in Mark 7. In that story the woman is described as “Syrophoenician.” This designation is more about ethnicity than it is nationality. Ethnicity can also function like a built in border. The point is easy to see – Jesus has infiltrated “foreign” soil and there has run into a “foreign” person. Or is it the other way around? Is Jesus in fact the foreigner, the one now out of place, where he doesn’t belong?

Since we will never be able to ask Matthew why, as he rewrote the story that he found in Mark, he preferred Syrophoenician over Canaanite, we can only assume that both writers want to make the point that Jesus has crossed borders, and that their story will tell us something about what that means.

The woman has a seriously troubled daughter. We understand that “tormented by a demon” can be a wide ranging diagnosis that covers a lot of bad stuff. The girl is hurting and her mother is desperate for help. Desperate enough to beg for help from a foreign man. Perhaps one she would have previously looked down upon as an Israeli dog – or as an Israeli who might have looked at her the same way. But desperate times seek desperate measures and she was desperate.

She begs Jesus and Jesus ignores her. The disciples chime in and help us clearly see that they had no interest in helping her. My sense today about this story is that it is less about the woman and her daughter and more about the disciples. Jesus never forgot that he was on a mission, sometimes it seems like the disciples just thought they were on a long walk. Here, like at the feeding of the 5000, the disciples just wanted needy hurting people to go away.

Maybe, when Jesus says, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” he is giving voice more to the expectation of the disciples than to his own understanding.

But this woman will not be denied. And Jesus will not deny helping her. They seem so different, so separate, this Israeli and this Canaanite. Yet both are dogs. Which is not such a bad thing as both are fed by the same Master.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we spend so much time and energy on borders and divisions and “who is in?” and “who is out?” You see that in us. You see how this hurts more than helps. We’re driven by fears, by the need for social acceptance, by the desire to hoard more than share, by pecking orders which constantly peck at us. May the power of your love, which made borders disappear in the eyes of Jesus, continue to feed us as we live in a world of needy hurting people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


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