The meeting between Jesus and a Canaanite woman would’ve been just one among many were it not for the shock of their conversation.
Even though Jesus is sometimes harsh with the Pharisees, we still expect compassion for a woman in need.
And so, when we see Jesus first ignore her and then compare her to a dog, we wonder what’s going on.
I think we can start to get a handle on it by looking at this story in terms of boundaries.
The first boundary is geographical.
Jesus has gone not only to Gentile country but to Canaanite country, the land of Israel’s oldest enemies, in modern-day southern Lebanon.
The Canaanites, who had a reputation for corruption and violence, were living in the Promised Land before the Israelites got there and drove them out.
Some Canaanites remained, though, and so did the bitterness and feuding between them and Israel.
Going there as a Jew could be compared to going from Israel to Gaza today.
So, it was unlikely that any Jews would come there, across that border.
The second boundary is personal.
The passage doesn’t tell us about Jesus’s state of mind, but I imagine he was tired and grieving, and needed some time out.
His cousin, John the Baptist, had recently been killed, thousands of people had been clamouring for his help, and then he’d had the Pharisees arguing with him about petty traditions.
Jesus was and is God, but in his earthly ministry he was God with the limitations that go with being a human being, like tiredness, sadness and frustration.
He needed to set limits and boundaries on the time and energy he spent on helping people, for the sake of his wellbeing, and that of his disciples.
Setting boundaries may sometimes seem like selfishness but it’s vital if we want to serve others joyfully and effectively, and nowhere does the Bible say that Christians are meant to be overburdened and miserable – quite the opposite in fact!
The third boundary is between Jews and Gentiles.
This boundary is revealed when Jesus says that he was only sent to the house of Israel.
This might make us feel left out but Jesus’s ministry follows a pattern that even Paul, the champion of the Gentiles, recognised when he said that the gospel came first to the Jew and then to the Greek.
Israel, as the chosen people of God, was given a special place in the world but it wasn’t for their sake alone.
With Israel’s blessing came responsibility, as way back in Genesis Abraham was told that his descendants were to be a blessing and light for the whole world
Jesus continued Israel’s role by going to his own people first.
However, this passage also teaches us that no boundary should be so rigid that it excludes mercy and compassion.
For all the seeming harshness of Jesus here, he did, in the end, grant the woman’s request, and in doing so he crossed over the Jew/Gentile divide.
After all, he’d just lectured the Pharisees about holding so hard to traditions that there was no room for the loving spirit of the law, and Jesus is no hypocrite.
Here, though, is perhaps the hardest part of the story to deal with: Jesus comparing the woman to a dog.
Obviously, we don’t know how it was said and whether Jesus was smiling or not, and such things can make all the difference between something being an insult or a piece of wry humour.
We do know that ‘dog’ was a common insult used against Gentiles, but that word referred to the feral scavenger dogs who roamed the streets being a nuisance.
The word Jesus uses, though, refers to pet dogs, in fact to pet puppies.
Then, as now, these dogs were generally cherished members of the family, and woe betide anyone who said they weren’t important!
I don’t have a dog now but I used to have a pair of border collie/Labrador crosses.
I loved these dogs, looked after them and fed them.
But, much as I did love them and want to give them what they needed, they weren’t in quite the same position as the humans in the house.
We had our food at our time and they had their food at their time – and maybe they had to wait until we’d finished eating but they would get their turn.
So, it’s not that Jesus is saying, ‘Go away, you’re worthless and I’m not giving you anything’.
Rather, he’s saying, ‘It’s not your time yet, when it is you’ll get everything you need’.
It’s always hard when we don’t get an immediate answer from God, and sometimes God seems most silent when we’re most desperate.
We might’ve experienced this during the pandemic, wondering what’s going on and not getting any answers.
But this woman is not easily put off.
She accepts what Jesus is saying but still believes.
She believes not only that Jesus can help her but that he will help her.
Her faith is not just that God exists and is powerful, but that God is love.
That is the faith that Jesus responds to…a faith insisting that, no matter what he sounds like, his essence is still love and compassion.
She knows that if she can just look him in the eye, his love will not be able to refuse her request.
And she’s right.
There’s an important challenge in this passage: can we believe in God’s goodness even when it looks or sounds like it doesn’t exist?
Even in the middle of a global crisis?
Can we have the kind of faith that a child in a loving family has that her parents will answer when she calls, even if she has to call a few times?
Can we have faith in Jesus…in God?
Not, do we believe God exists…not, do we believe God is all-powerful, or all-knowing … but do we believe that God is love, even when it doesn’t look like it?