At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out," Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon." But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus' disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us." He said in reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, "Lord, help me." He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters." Then Jesus said to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.
This story is one of a series of stories that is meant to illustrate that Jesus was accepted by Gentiles in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. Others include the story of the three wise men from the East arriving in Jerusalem at Jesus’s birth and the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross who declares Jesus the son of God at his death.
But the story can serve another purpose besides its intended one: Jesus is treating the Canaanite woman exceptionally badly. She is a member of a hated Gentile minority; traditionally considered a descendent of Ham – Noah’s cursed son. Jesus all but calls her a dog and won’t help her epileptic daughter until she has subordinated herself completely. One of the most often repeated commands in Scripture is to welcome the foreigner. Jesus is in clear violation. His disciples are no better – asking Jesus to help her only to get this pest off their backs.
Homilists around the world will try to gloss this story this weekend. They will say Jesus was just testing the woman’s faith. They will say it shows Jesus’s willingness to change. But the story is inescapably scandalous to anyone who believes Jesus’s purpose was to provide a moral example. After all, we don’t consider someone who is moral some of the time a moral example.
So the story may also serve to dissuade us that Jesus is supposed to be a moral example. This is, of course, a hard pill to swallow. It may challenge the very foundations of our faith, if we think faith is about being a good person. Or it may be the path to making faith more meaningful. The first two lines of Abraham Heschel’s book, God in Search of Man, are as follows:
It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.
The truth is, religious morality and secular morality are almost indistinguishable from one another. But religion overwhelmingly defines itself in terms of the moral. It renders itself insipid in the process. Religion must be about something more - something that transcends morality.