Today we move ahead in our reading of Matthew’s Gospel. The Pharisees and scribes have challenged Jesus, asking why his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat. They imply that Jesus and his disciples are breaking the traditional purity laws. Jesus replies: It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out. What goes into the mouth is flushed out into the sewer; it is a passing, temporary uncleanliness, unimportant. What comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. Evil intentions such as murder, theft, and lies are what truly defile.
Now, Jesus has crossed from Galilee into the district of Tyre and Sidon, which is gentile territory. There are tremendous implications in this passage. Apart from anything else, it describes the only occasion on which Jesus was ever outside of Jewish territory. The significance of the passage is that it fore-shadows the going out of the gospel to the whole world; it shows us the beginning of the end of all the barriers.
A woman begs for mercy and healing for her afflicted daughter, recognizing Jesus as Lord and Son of David. However, Jesus gives an unsettling reply: I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Not to an outsider, a woman, a Gentile. Even when she kneels before him, implying worship and a deep understanding of his divine status, he refers to her and her daughter as dogs. Yet she persists, again addressing Jesus as Lord, and insists that even the dogs eat the crumbs from the table, but we can be quite sure that the smile on Jesus’ face and the compassion in his eyes robbed the words of all insult and bitterness. Secondly, the word for dogs means the little household pets.
Not only does she see clearly who Jesus is, but also, she understands how great is his power to heal. This is what faith means. She knows who he is and she knows that only Jesus can heal her daughter. The rest does not matter: She is a supplicant. She is not proud; she is determined. And Jesus responds to this faith instantly. In those few minutes, he recognizes that his mission has expanded. A poor woman has shown him this much: He did not come just for the children of Israel. His mercy extends to everyone. Full of admiration, he responds first to her great faith, and then to her wish for her daughter: “Your faith is great. Your daughter is well.” God’s mercy is abundant; God’s healing and love overflow; there is enough for not only the children of Israel, but also for the entire world.
Jesus is illustrating for his disciples that true faith is persistent and open-eyed, and extends to a wider world beyond the Jewish community and so we all benefit from that woman’s faith. Jesus has redefined the boundaries of the kingdom of God, extending the kingdom beyond the borders of Israel. An outcast becomes a catalyst. This is the wonder of the gospel stories. The Good News comes from unexpected places. A woman ignored and considered a nuisance becomes an object of admiration by Jesus himself. Instead of sending her away, he expands his mission from the limits of Judaea to the rest of the world. We owe this woman a great deal. And the prophecy of Isaiah concerning foreigners is fulfilled: They, too, can minister to the Lord.
Just as Jesus was surprised by the faith expressed by the Canaanite woman, so too the first Christians were surprised that the Gentiles would receive the salvation God offered through Christ.
Reading this stories during the season of Ordinary time, when we celebrate the role of the Church in the work of God in the world, reminds us that God is constantly entering new territory and breaking boundaries. God’s work, and the work of the Church, is to meet outsiders and grant them a place at the table. Do we extend a welcoming hand to persons whose experience of God’s presence is understood from a different tradition? The first reading from Isaiah and the selection from Paul’s letter to the Romans make this clear. We hear the apostle Paul considering this same concern. He confirms that God never rejects God’s people. God is merciful, always, to everyone.
It comes down to remembering that we are all God’s children, that God’s love is unconditional, and that God’s mercy extends beyond all boundaries. God’s mercy covers all of us.