This is a passage preachers sweat over for the simple reason that right here in black and white, Jesus is being a Jerk. Meeting with a mother who is frightened for the health of her child, Jesus ignores her. When she gets in his face, he condescends to her and essentially tells her that she’s not worthy of mercy. When she refuses to shut up, he’s rude but she wins the honor challenge (an aspect of Middle Eastern Honor/Shame culture) and Jesus gives in. All in all, this is absolutely NOT the Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild we were taught to idolize in Sunday School.
But that may, in fact, be kind the point, we were taught Gentle Jesus when we were kids, in other words, when we needed our explanations to be reeeeeeealy simple. With our limited understanding, some complexities were glossed over. But if our image of God hasn’t grown up with us, when we’re confronted with This Guy we don’t know what to do.
Some folks taco the text, trying to make Jesus not be a jerk. Maybe he was testing her, or inviting her to show (and see) the depths of her faith, or proving to the disciples that their prejudice was against the will of the kingdom. Perhaps he was learning that women too have power and that they are a valued part of the community, in direct (and correct) challenge to the idiot notions of patriarchy so common in society. Possibly it’s a story of the honor challenge with Jesus coming off the loser but Becoming a Better Person for it. It might even be a story of female empowerment. (Before you ask, I’ve heard most of these explanations from pulpit and study groups, I’m not just making them up on a whim).
At this point, I’m not even going to try to explain it. I’ll just say “I’ve got nothing on this one” and see what I can find out poking through the text. If I am absolutely required to give an explanation, I’m going to plead the answer of Job “God is big and I am small, I cannot encompass God within my understanding.” In other words, I plead the mystery of a God I cannot completely understand but who is still present in the midst of this chaotic, beautiful, painful world.
What I noticed going trhough the text this time is something important about who this woman is. Her first words to Jesus are a kyrie eleison “Lord have mercy” (yes, this is what we say in the morning liturgy each Sunday ‘Lord, have mercy on me because I am small, the journey is too much for me(cite) and you promised never to leave me alone(cite).’ This kyrie is easy to see in the Greek where it reads eleson me, kurie uios David “have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” It’s a prayer I’ve prayed before, it’s a prayer we use in the church pretty much every week. It’s a cry for mercy in the face of the merciless forces in this world. It’s a cry Jesus ignores.
He doesn’t ignore a casual, polite “oh, if it isn’t too much of a bother” request, the verb describing what the woman does is krazdo “to cry out, clamor” some folks might even say “holler.” It’s a loud cry for mercy, and Jesus ignores it. No, I don’t know why he does this, it doesn’t make sense, but I will trust that there is something true in the mystery and keep going in hope of understanding. [faith seeking understanding, y’know]
She keeps hollering and the disciples beg Jesus to “tell her to shut up and go away.” He answers with a total non-sequitur “I was sent to the lost/destoyed/ruined sheep of Israel.” [The Greek word here is apollumi which includes the idea of destroyed/devastated/laid waste to/utter failure]
There’s ethnic hostility and history here and again, I’ve got nothing on why he does this. Oh, there are valid justifications here, just as there are valid self-justifications for all the stuff we do, but nothing to explain his answer and make it neat and nice. (Then again, perhaps we’ve spent too much time trying to Be Nice, maybe it’s time to consider and accept the messiness and conflict of life a bit more).
Finally she comes up and falls down (proskuneo) at Jesus’ feet. In this time and place, this is how a low status person greeted a much higher status person. It’s also the word we translate as “bowed down in worship” so a pretty abject position. Her request is much more direct now kurie, boethei moi “Lord, help me!” Surely Gentle Jesus will help now. Nope, they get into an argument about dogs (a socially unclean animal of the time).
And then she wins the honor challenge of the dog dispute and Jesus says something very interesting: O gunai, megale sou he pistis “O Woman, great/giant/huge the faith that is yours.” This is in particular contrast to what he said the chapter before when he called Peter little-faith.
The Greek word for faith is also translated “trust,” this is because faith is more than simple assent to intellectual propositions, it is the power that drove the hemorrhaging woman to touch the hem of Jesus robe. It motivated the woman with a spirit of weakness to go to Jesus for healing. The four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus did so for the same reason. They did not know why or how but they knew that there was something powerfully beautiful and loving in this Jesus and that he would heal. In all their cases, the trust was rewarded.
So where does that leave us then? I’m not really sure.
Jesus is indeed acting like a jerk here, ignoring the woman and calling her a dog, but he’s impressed at her trust and does heal her daughter. In fact, he says genetheto soi os theleis “let it be to you as you wish/will,” which is a lot more broadly generous than our translations usually make it out to be.
So Jesus ignores prayer but still heals, God turns away and yet comforts, life is a mess and yet it is still “in His hands.” And in the middle of this mixed up mess, here is a woman with mega faith. She clings to Jesus “like a burr to a topcoat” (as another famous woman put it) and she has mega trust. And before you ask, mega is the English word we get from megale.
“Gigantic, magnificent, is your faith” Jesus says and in the chaotic world of nobody knows what tomorrow will bring, that may well be enough. In fact, because the trust is rooted in Jesus, because it is anchored in the One who is the Way God Loves the Cosmos, I am sure it is enough.