Today’s text comes from the lectionary reading, and it contains two healing stories. Before we get to them, I must mention that today’s text is difficult for some people to understand without making Jesus as a racist because Jesus called a Canaanite woman as a “dog” in the text. What do you think? Do you think Jesus was a racist?
Let us look at the text together. By the way, in the synoptic gospels, only Matthew and Mark have the story of a Canaanite woman whose daughter was demon-possessed. In Matthew chapter 15, verse 21, when Jesus was traveling through Tyre and Sidon, a Canaanite woman was calling out for Jesus asking for help, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” In Mark’s gospel, we see that she was a Greek, born in Syria Phoenicia but in Matthew, it says that she was a Canaanite. Which one is it? I should say she was both because it was ruled by Greeks for the period right before the time of Jesus. And, in the Old Testament times, this region was occupied by Canaanite tribes. Greek or Canaanite, we know that she was a gentile. It is important to know that to the Jews of that time, Gentiles were ‘dogs’: they did not keep the law, more accurately they did not have the law, so they, like dogs, lived uncleanly, did not have the understanding to act in accordance with God’s will, –therefore, Jews treated gentiles like unclean animals. Even being in their presence could make a person ceremonially unclean as we can see in John 18:28.
When she was asking for help, Jesus answered, “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Jesus called her a “dog” here, isn’t it? The exact word, however, Jesus used here, in Greek, was kunarion, meaning “small dog” or “pet dog.” This is a different word from the term kuon, used to refer to “unspiritual” people or to an “unclean” animal.
Jesus was saying that his mission was to the people of Israel, not to the Gentiles. In a way saying that carelessly taking His attention from Israel, in violation of His mission, would be like a father taking food from his children in order to throw it to their pets.
Let us pause here for a minute and think about what Jesus was really doing here. We remember that previously, in Matthew 8:5-13, Jesus granted Roman centurion, a gentile’s wish to heal his servant without saying any such thing to him. Moreover, in our text, verse 31, Jesus went through Tyre and Sidon and went down into the region of Decapolis; in another version, it was translated as “middle of the region of Decapolis”. If Jesus considered gentiles as dogs “unclean” and his ministry should be limited to Jews only, then, why Jesus would go through the deep into the Gentile region, Decapolis, not just passing periphery area of the region but the middle of the region? Moreover, the following story of healing took place in the middle of the gentile region, Decapolis. In other words, Jesus did his ministry among the Gentiles as well. One last critical point I would like to make is that we all remember that Jesus fed 5000 men with the leftover twelve baskets; this took place near Bethsaida, close to the Sea of Galilee. The immediate story that follows today’s text is Jesus feeding the 4,000 with 7 left-over baskets, and it took place in the Gentile region of the Gerasenes, in the region around Decapolis. Do you think it is coincidental? No! Twelve baskets symbolize twelve tribes of Israel, and seven baskets symbolize gentile nations, —seven ethnic groups that occupied the land of Canaan were Hivites, Girgashites, Jebusites, Amorites, Hittites, and Perizzites, Canaanites. Jesus feeds twelve Israelites as well as the whole gentile nations, these two feedings represent. Seven also signifies the completeness. Not just Israelites, but with gentiles together, it completes God’s mission, it means. So when Jesus came down to this earth, not just Israelites, but also gentiles like us God had in mind to save.
With that said, let’s go back to our text today, and we know that Jesus was testing this Canaanite woman to prove her faith. Jesus declined her request and explained that she had no legitimate expectation of His help. The woman, however, was not going to give up but kept pleading. She had the right faith even from her Canaanite background better than her Jewish counterparts. In Israel Jesus was trying to convince people He was the Messiah, and he was being challenged to prove it with signs. But here in Gentile territory, he met a woman who was convinced Jesus was the Messiah. Matthew 15: 21, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” As we all know that the term, “Son of David” is a term for Messiah in the Jewish context. The Jewish leaders were rejecting Him, but this Gentile woman who might hardly know Him confessed him as the Messiah. How impressive! Those of us who think that we are righteous because we belong to church since we have never left church might not have the right faith in God. Perhaps, people in the street, the sinners, the undeserving in our eyes might have the better faith in God knowing that God is merciful and accepting sinners regardless. This Canaanite woman was pleading for crumb- like- mercy for no matter how undeserving she may be. How accurately she understood God, the merciful God who never turns away broken-hearted, pleading for mercies! ‘Yes! I am undeserving, I am not righteous, I can never be your child as undeserving, but please, even just for crumb-like mercies, would you please, spare me? She sought mercy, mercy was given. She was a cursed Canaanite, yet she was the one who received the blessing. On the other hand, the blessed Israelites, the religious leaders, turned down their blessings; they were condemned but the problem was they did not know that they have chosen the curse, instead of blessings.
Jesus’ apparent attempt to put her off was, therefore, a test, and her great faith, Jesus was pleased with.
What can we learn from this Canaanite woman? Do we know that God is merciful? In the face of stumbling blocks and obstacles which we find in the way for us to get closer to God, how many of us being persistent, claiming God’s mercy for our helpless situations? A few attempts to pray for our heart’s desire, and if we feel like God is not listening to us, then do we continuously and persistently pray pleading for God’s mercy? God listens to our prayers, God answers our prayers, maybe not right away as we would like God to, but in God’s own time, sometimes soon, sometimes taking longer than we would like it to, maybe in ten years- time or after we die, God answers our prayers. The question is whether we know that God is merciful; God never turns his back on people who plead for mercies and grace.
Verse 31, another healing story begins. Jesus went deep into the region of Decapolis, and, there, people brought a man who was both deaf and mute and pleaded with him to lay his hand on him.
We noticed here that Jesus took this man to a private space and instead of just laying his hand on him, Jesus put fingers into the ears of this man who was deaf and dumb. Before we go into details, in the Jewish context, being deaf was considered worse off than being blind since deaf cannot hear God’s words. In the synagogue, the scriptures are read but the deaf cannot hear. Meaning deaf cannot be instructed in the ways of God, the worst condition one can be in, being cut off from the rest of the world. To this man, who could not hear, Jesus touched him in the way the deaf man could understand what was going on around him.
It was as though he said, “I am about to open a passage for hearing through these ears.” And he spat, and Jesus touched his tongue with saliva from his own lips. The popular belief at that time was that saliva had medicinal effects. We see from here that Jesus meet this afflicted man at his level and communicate to him what was going to happen to him. Putting fingers into his ears and touching his tongue with Jesus’ own saliva might have intended to awaken the afflicted man’s faith, and to stir up in him the lively expectation of a blessing. After that, Jesus was looking up to heaven and said, “Ephphatha”, “be opened!”, communicating to him that blessings, healings come from God.
Jesus meets us where we are at, in ways we can understand: he is prepared to come into our world, engage with our frailty on our terms and bring us the touch of grace and love that we long for, — the greatest sign of humility. When we communicate God’s love, we have to come in humility to meet people’s level, in ways people can understand, instead of insisting on our own ways on them.
Another thing we need to think about from this story of the deaf man being healed is we all know that closure of human, one’s isolation, does not solely depend on the sense organs. There is an inner closing, which covers the deepest core of the person, what the Bible calls the “heart.” That is what Jesus came to “open,” to liberate, to enable us to fully live our relationship with God and with others. He became a human so that humans, made inwardly deaf and dumb by sin, would become able to hear the voice of God, the voice of love speaking to our heart, and learn to speak the language of love, to communicate with God and with others.
Lastly, we hear God’s words at least every Sunday, –love, sacrifice, humility, forgiveness, sharing, giving rightly to God, etc, yet we are the same as yesterday, we have not changed at all. Perhaps, we are spiritually deaf?? We hear God’s message at least every Sunday, yet instead of speaking the language of love, the language of God, instead of encouraging, instead of loving, instead of building up, we condemn, we criticize, we gossip, we put down others. Perhaps, we are spiritually mute?? Do we hear Jesus saying to us, “Ephphatha!”?