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Meditation on the Healing of the Canaanite Woman’s Daughter

August 19, 2011

Meditation given at St. Paul’s Church on-the-Hill, St. Paul, MN, 5:00 pm, Saturday, August 13, 2011.  Gospel Text: Matthew 15:21-28

We know very little about the Canaanite woman, her daughter, or, for that matter, very little about Jesus himself.  The gospels paint an imperfect picture at best.  Sometimes it is helpful to put ourselves into the story: to begin to identify more particularly with the nature and plight of those whose lives are intimately touched by Jesus; to find common ground in their encounter with Jesus and in our own.  This story is how I identify with the Canaanite woman’s circumstance.

The sound of a child’s laughter startled her, and she found herself crying.

Three children ran past her down a dusty street.  How long had she been here at the well?  She had only sat down for a minute to rest, but now the sun was high and hot.  Her eyes were burning.  Was it from the heat, or from her tears?  She could not remember the last time she had slept.  It seemed that every time she closed her eyes, anguished shrieks jolted her awake.  Inconsolable suffering had replaced insatiable delight.

As she watched the three children chase one another across the market place, she thought of her own little girl at home—her daughter—or was it?  Who was the little girl who thrashed and writhed on the mat in the corner night after night—day after day?  There was nothing familiar in her vacant, hollow eyes—no glimmer of the light and laughter that had been her daughter.  At first it seemed as if an awful fever had consumed the child, but the fever never broke.  For days, then weeks, then months the affliction lingered.  A putrid odor hung everywhere about her, and deathlike melancholy shrouded the household.

She had tried everything—everyone.  One after another, itinerant prophets, miracle workers and exorcists had flaunted their ceremonies and incantations in and around her home.  The priests of Isis and the followers of Celebe had made the appointed offerings and sacrifices.  A Roman soldier had even brought her the mystical healing ritual of the god Asclepius at Epidauros.  All to no avail.  None had succeeded in healing her daughter, only in depleting her purse and exhausting her vigor.  She had even appealed to the rabbis of the god of the Jews, but they rebuffed her; she was a Canaanite woman—she was beneath even their contempt.  She had nowhere else in all the world to turn.

Yet, there was one man—one miracle worker—of whom she had heard.  With the Roman legions marching everywhere, no gossip was long in spreading.  Travelling everywhere, this man was said to heal the sick and drive out demons where all others had failed.  One soldier told her of how he had seen with his own eyes how this man fed thousands of people from the simple lunch of one small boy.  If she could but appeal to him to come to her daughter’s bed, she knew—somehow, she knew—that he could heal her daughter’s suffering.

“Out of our way, dog!”  The biting words of the Jewish woman stung her to her very heart.  She quickly filled her pitcher and began to slink away.  As she was withdrawing, she overheard a name that riveted her.  “Jesus.”  Could it be?  Could these women be talking about the one of whom she had heard—the healer, the miracle worker?  “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Her heart raced.  It was he, he of whom she had heard.  He was here!  Here in her village!  The one of infinite authority was here!

In the same instant, she heard the clamor in the market place.  It must be him—there—in the center of the crowd.  She froze, unable to take a step.  Her heart pounded as her eyes filled again with tears—this time, tears of hope.  Then, dropping her pitcher, she ran headlong into the throng.  Pushing and elbowing her way to get near him, to speak to him.  If only she could capture his notice, if only for a moment.  Yet, how would he hear her above the chaos of the mob?

“Lord,” she cried.  The soldier had told her this was the name his followers called him.  Perhaps he would stop if he thought she was a disciple.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!”  She had overheard the rabbis teach of a famous king whose heir would have great power—power to heal and power to restore.  He was the one of power; she knew it in her heart.

“Stay back, dog.”  A large man shoved her back, his thick Galilean accent distorting his words.  Dazed for only a moment, she resumed her supplication.  He could help her daughter.  She knew.  She knew.

Then, he spoke.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

“Lord, help me,” she wept, falling to her knees.  Her tears of hope had returned again to tears of pain.

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he replied.

Dogs.  She rose and gazed directly into his eyes.  His eyes.  His eyes, too, depicted exhaustion and pain and tears.  A drop of sweat rolled into his eye provoking a world-weary tear of heat and dust.  Could he remember the last time he had slept?  Was this the man who had dried a million tears?

The crowd fell silent as she stepped toward him.  She wiped away a tear of sorrow.  He wiped away a tear of exhaustion.  Looking deeply into his eyes, she knew.  She knew.  All the pain and anguish and fear from deep within her heart rose up into her throat.  Swallowing hard, she found her voice.  “Yes, Lord,” she sobbed, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Her tears flowed unchecked, intermingling with the dust on her cheeks.  He reached out and wiped her cheek, then considered the wonderful mixture of dust and tears on his hand, and he knew.  He knew.

“Woman,” he said gently, “great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  Someone elbowed her aside, and the crowd swallowed him up.  He was gone.

Yet she knew.  She turned and jostled her way through the mob.  She ran through the dusty streets, not stopping until she burst through the doorway of her tiny home.

The sound of her child’s laughter startled her, and she found herself crying—crying tears of joy.

This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman raises difficult and troubling questions.  Was Jesus harsh and indifferent to her pleas?  Does she outwit Jesus in a debate to achieve her ends?  How does a Canaanite come to know of the “Son of David”?  Is it here that Jesus reverses his earlier admonition to go only to the lost sheep of Israel?  These questions, intriguing as they may be, only obfuscate the deeper meanings of this story.  This is a story of faith and love between a mother in need and a compassionate savior: faith born in the needs of a helpless child; love rooted in the grace of a benevolent Father.  This interweaving of child and parent, faith and love, suffering and redemption touch upon the very nature of God.

The medieval English mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich, received a vision of how these human attributes effect our perception of the divine.  She wrote:

Fair and sweet is our heavenly Mother in the sight of our soul, precious and lovely are the children of grace in the sight of our heavenly Mother, with gentleness and meekness and all the lovely virtues which belong to children by nature…. I understood no greater stature in this life than childhood, with its feebleness and lack of power and intelligence, until the time that our gracious Mother has brought us up into our Father’s bliss.  And there it will be truly made known to us what he means in the sweet words when he says: All will be well, and you will see it yourself, that every kind of thing will be well.

Thus are we: helpless children of grace, understanding no greater stature in the eyes of God than childhood with its feebleness and lack of power and intelligence.  Jesus, like a tenacious mother, fights and dies to save our very souls.  Through his salvific act of redemption, we are exorcised from sin and death, and are nourished and sustained with his precious body and blood.

As Dame Julian wrote, “And then will the bliss of our motherhood in Christ be to begin anew in the joys of our Father, God, which new beginning will last, newly beginning without end.”

Copyright © 2011 Scott B. Monson.  All rights reserved.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. mary jo permalink
    August 13, 2014 4:58 pm

    Just what I needed for my RCIA class tonight! Blessings

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