In the time Jesus the two cities of Tyre and Sidon were prosperous Roman port cities and as we might guess despite the wealth of the citizens therein, there was also ‘poverty’. Commentators suggest that there was a great spiritual hunger in the region and it seems that news of Jesus and his message and probably news of his reputation as a healer had proceeded him. Thus when he withdraws to the region it might not surprise us that a Canaanite would approach him for help.
Certainly Canaanites did not normally mix with Jews and indeed Jesus often faced hostile receptions in such places. But in fairness, there was also prejudice and mixed feelings on the part of both ethnic groups about the other – feelings that found their way into language and attitudes.
So we have a puzzling story of why Jesus does not at first answer the woman and why he repeats and uses ‘common’ language in his dialogue with her – a dialogue that at first seems to be dismissive.
Yet as every parent knows, one will fight and advocate for one’s children to the end of our strength – such is the power of love. So why does Jesus seem to ignore her at first?
We can struggle to easily and simply explain away some of troubling words in this text – or we can look a little deeper and see what lessons there might be there for us to notice.
Let’s look at one very important message. If we look to the story as a whole, we see that this woman becomes for Jesus a wonderful example of humility, persistence in prayer, and faith.
This indeed might be the essential truth for us to notice – and the example for us to imitate in living our own discipleship. We are called to be like this woman!
To be humble is to allow God to work in and through our lives. It is the defining stance of a Christian, and to be humble is to put ego and self aside and stand before our God in all our needs and powerlessness and accepting from God all the graces we need.
To be persistent in prayer is likewise a central reality in our discipleship and a stance that underpins our very lives. It is to be constantly in relationship to God in our thoughts, words and reflections and to listen attentively to God’s word to us.
To have faith and to live from it is the foundation of our everyday life. It is at the core of our being Christian. It is at once the ‘compass’ that guides our every decision and act, the rock on which we stand in times of trial and suffering and the place from which we draw meaning and offer our thanks to God.
Ultimately through her interaction with Jesus the Canaanite woman shows us that indeed our God “will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.” This truth is evident and it is one we can place our trust in.
Let us imitate the example of this woman in our Christian journey each day – living a humble life, being persistent in our prayer and having faith at all times and in all circumstances.
Fr. Denis Travers, C.P., is a member of Holy Spirit Province, Australia. He currently serves on the General Council and is stationed in Rome.