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 he did not say a word in answer to her.
His 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 him 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 her daughter was healed from that hour.” (Mt 15:-1-28)
In this Gospel passage, Jesus is approached by a Canaanite woman who asks for help for her daughter. Jesus initially refuses her, in a way that is almost shocking, given the wide range of people to whom Jesus ministers in other gospel stories, for example, the Samaritan woman, or the Roman centurion, both of whom are “outside” the community to which Jesus refers here. Given his own willingness to minister to all kinds of people throughout the larger number of stories, perhaps Jesus was trying to demonstrate something for his own disciples about the need to go where help is needed and not to be limited by our own categories of who “counts” as part of the community. This story also demonstrates the faith of the woman, who is persistent in asking for what she needs and not shaken in her faith that eventually Jesus will come around and heal her daughter (and, in a way, also heal her own heartache for her ill daughter). Jesus is merciful and embodies for all of us the centrality of mercy in our own lives. Mercy always trumps justice and self-righteousness in our faith.
The passage made me think about the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, a long standing tradition in the church. A list can be found here:
Jesus acts in remarkably concrete ways, physical and material, to assist others. He heals sickness. He makes sure the people around him have food to eat, as with the multiplication of loaves and fishes. We also as Christians are called to assist our neighbor in material, physical concrete ways: feed the hungry, minister to the sick even if all we can do is visit, spend time with those in prison, shelter the homeless. These all need to be practiced directly but there are also opportunities to practice them indirectly. For example, few of us have people who walk up to our homes to ask for food, but we know that there are hungry people in our communities, so we can give money or donate food to food pantries.
The spiritual works of mercy are no less important. Even in this single passage, we can see their similarity to what Jesus does. His actions instruct his disciples around him to act to assist others in need regardless of ethnicity or religion. He comforts the woman by praising her faith. The woman displays some of the spiritual works of mercy, too. When Jesus rebukes her, instead of lashing back, she bears the wrong patiently, and her words back to him instruct and even admonish him. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are concrete ways to live out the Christian life in practice. As we mature, our sense of who deserves mercy–and our sense of our own great need for mercy–ought to grow and expand, to include all of God’s people, and even God’s creation.