First he ignores her. Then he dismisses her. Then he insults her. Can this be Jesus? Jesus whose own neighbors and kin ignored him. Surely he would know the pain being ignored can cause. Can this be Jesus—Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee? Jesus who endured his own share of insults about where he came from and who he included in his circle.
Yet Jesus says to that Canaanite woman, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dogs—some say the Greek word really should be translated little bitches. What an insult! Can this be Jesus? Jesus of “Let the little children come unto me”. Jesus who welcomes tax collectors and sinners to his table. Jesus who calls Samaritans good. Jesus who, after his death and resurrection, comes back to his disciples and says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples out of all nations.” Can this be Jesus ignoring, dismissing and finally insulting the woman kneeling at his feet. Apparently so.
Yet she persists that woman from across the border, that Canaanite woman. Her deep need unleashes her courage. “Even the dogs,” she says, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Think of it—a woman, a widow likely, a Gentile, an enemy of the Jews, challenging Jesus right there in front of all his disciples. The audacity of it all. It’s a wonder he didn’t chase her off like one might chase away a dog nipping at one’s feet.
But her persistence, her willingness to wrestle with him, causes him to shift his stance and in the doing shift the way he looks at who he is and what God is calling him to do and be.
That woman, that Canaanite woman, an outsider to the nth degree, moves Jesus to rethink his notions about insiders and outsiders. That woman, that mother determined to get her daughter the help she needs, leads Jesus to redraw his lines, his boundaries, his borders.
How amazing. An encounter with the holy right there in the borderland between Galilee and Tyre-Sidon. Right there on the line between Jews and Gentiles. It gives me goose bumps. There were two healing miracles that day in the borderland—that mother’s child healed of a demon and a man named Jesus healed of a prejudice. Remember—Jesus was fully human. Like many of us here in this room, he shared the blinders of his time and place—at least the blinders that divided Jew and Gentile, the blinders that marked Jews a chosen people, Israel a chosen land and everyone else as Other.
But there in that land, that space, between the land of the Jews and the land of the Gentiles, an outsider turned Jesus’ head to a larger vision of God’s reign. That’s what gives me goose bumps—the persistence of her plea and his opening to her words. Both her persistent plea and his radical opening happen in the borderland between their two worlds .
Borderlands–spaces where the old rules just don’t apply, places where the grooves we fit so comfortably in disappear. Places both fraught with danger and laced with possibilities. In-between places where what has been shifts to something new and maybe even quite different. I can imagine that both Jesus and that Canaanite woman were tempted hold tight to what they had known. After all, borderlands, like that space between Galilee and Tyre-Sidon can be scary places.
Yet look what happens when folks step into those borderlands and are open to the possibilities to be found amidst all that uncertainty. Look what happens to that Canaanite woman and look what happens to Jesus. She gains her voice. She saves her daughter. She saves her future. He gains a vision of a world without borders, a world where all are welcome at the table, a world where people are “free enough of racial and cultural prejudices of the past to be able to love one another as each is, free enough to learn from one another, free enough to value and respect one another.”1
No wonder Jesus says to that Canaanite woman, “Great is your faith.” For great is her faith in God’s promise of world where all are kin to one another. Great is her faith in Jesus’ capacity to live into the fullness of that world. Great is her faith born in the borderlands.