Was Jesus incredibly rude to a desperate mother? Why didn’t his biographers bury the story?
This Sunday the lectionary invites us to ponder Jesus’ encounter with a desperate woman, reported in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 15, verses 21-28. The Gospel of Mark gives a parallel account, in chapter 7, verses 24-30. Matthew calls her a Canaanite. Mark calls her a Syro-Phoenician.
The account begins at verse 21. But it’s better to begin at verse 1. In verses 1-20, Matthew recalls an exchange between Jesus and several “Pharisees and scribes” (Jews) who came from Jerusalem to accuse him.
They probably came because they’d heard that Jesus had miraculously healed, and fed thousands of people – which I discussed in “Why did Jesus enact the miracle of 5 loaves and 2 fish?”
They came to Jesus to register their annoyance with him. Over what? Over the fact that he, a headline-making Jew, was not a good Jew. How so? Because his disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate!
How I wish I’d been there to see the looks on the faces of Mark and Matthew when they recorded Jesus’ encounter with those Jews! I don’t have space to go into it. Let me just say that Jesus had some choice words for those Jews: “hypocrites” and “blind guides.”
Now for the story of the woman – whose name both of these biographers of Jesus didn’t record.
She came to Jesus alone. Asked him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. He ignored her. Brushed her away. She pestered him. His disciples got annoyed. Told him to deal with her. She fell at his feet. She – not a Jew – called him “Lord, Son of David.” She pleaded for mercy.
How did Jesus respond? With a riddle. In which he called her, and her daughter, and her race, dogs.
Matthew records Jesus’ words as: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Mark records his words as: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
What was her response? She didn’t go away in tears. She didn’t rant and rave. This is a mother. A mother whose every heartbeat is a throb of pain over the agony of her child. A mother with eyes to see and ears to hear. A mother who recognizes Jesus’ heart, his power, his claims.
What was her response? She “completes” the riddle. Matthew records her response in these words: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
She knew who Jesus was. This Canaanite – whose ancestors had so often distracted “God’s chosen nation” from right worship of YHWH – had great faith. Faith like that of the Roman centurion who’d come to Jesus and pleaded for his child’s healing. He too didn’t bring his child (Matthew 8:5-13). They knew all that was needed was for Jesus to issue a command.
She didn’t make a fuss about being called a dog. She didn’t say Jesus was practicing racial superiority. She didn’t appeal to those around her to intervene because Jesus was shaming her.
How did Jesus’ respond? “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly” (Matthew 15:28).
Was Jesus incredibly rude to a desperate mother? Or did he dramatize his encounter with her, to turn it into a teachable moment, forever?
What insight is revealed by the account, which the ESV titles “The Faith of a Canaanite woman”?
The most common lesson preachers draw from it is “persist in prayer and you’ll get what you want.” And it’s true. Jesus and the apostles urge us to pray, continuously. Because prayer produces change. But we all have stories of people we’ve prayed for who nevertheless died.
So, what’s “the lesson”? The lesson is that the Kingdom of God has come. A new era has dawned. Exclusivity, special position, for any ethnic group, is offensive to God. What counts is faith. In Him whose life goal was to be crucified. And the first to understand are those with no special position.
Was Jesus incredibly rude to a desperate woman? Or did he stage a riddle in order to teach a life-changing, world-shaping, un-evadable truth? What is that truth? Who’s evading it? Why?
 It’s critical to keep in mind, always, that Jesus, Matthew, and Mark were also Jews. And that the Gospels, which are biographies of Jesus, present many Jews positively.
 English Standard Version translation of the Bible.