There’s a troubling story in the gospels where Jesus encounters a woman that does not belong to His Jewish tribe. She has a huge problem and the common sentiment would be to despise her and let her suffer just because of her nationality and its unjust treatment of Jews.
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Let’s not rush over the text and miss out on the apparent implications of Jesus’ first response. He did not answer a word when she kept crying for help. Here is a woman who does not belong in the company of Jews and she has a suffering child. Demon possession was something that Jesus faced and dealt with many times.
As he ignored the obvious calamity that the woman was bringing, the disciples came and asked Jesus to send her away. Sending away is how we deal with the ones who threaten our peace. It is how the disciples would deal with distracting people and how we deal with people who do not stop bothering us.
Jesus next response seems to be exclusive and dismissive. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Sure, he goes on to honour the woman’s faith and heal the girl at a distance. But let’s not miss out on how this looks.
There’s an online Atheist Commentary on the Scriptures. This is what they said about Jesus in this story:
Overall, it’s not a very positive picture of the Almighty God we are getting here. What we are seeing is a petty person who picks and chooses which people he helps based upon what their nationality or religion is. When combined with his “inability” to help people from his home area because of their unbelief, we find that Jesus doesn’t always behave in an unreservedly compassionate and helpful manner — even when he does finally deign to leave some crumbs and scraps for the otherwise “unworthy” among us.[i]
A feminist commentary said this:
“The Canaanite is an aggressive single parent who here defies cultural taboos and acts to free Jesus from his sexism and racism by catching him in a bad mood or with his compassion down, besting him in an argument and herself becoming the vehicle of his liberation and the deliverance of her daughter.”[ii]
Apparently Jesus has a target on his back. He needs atheists and feminists to set him straight. We follow Jesus and may be offended easily by His enemies and critics, but our modus operandi is very much like the disciples.
Matthew reinforces this point by specifying exactly what Mark's Hellenistic Syro-Phoenician woman (Mk 7:26) means. She is a descendant of the ancient Canaanites, the bitter biblical enemies of Israel whose paganism had often led Israel into idolatry.[iii]
Let’s dismiss the people who challenge our convictions. In fact, let’s paint a target on their back and fire a few their way.
So stretch your imaginations to entertain the scene. Gathered in one corner are those familiar disciples, for Matthew the true blue representatives of the faithful lost sheep of Israel, now leaping into the fray like so many ravenous beasts, as it were self-styled guarantors of the holy tradition, on their guard lest the mercies of God be wasted on the unworthy. Like a gang of watchdogs at the door they are about the checking of IDs and keeping out the non-pedigreed riffraff. On the other side of the gate stands this outsider, a woman no less, one lone representative of the dogs of religion, now become as it were a lost sheep plaintively pleading for the mercy of the master shepherd. No English translation can capture Matthew's careful orchestration of the painful choral refrain. "Lord, have mercy," the dog's solo bleating cry. "Get rid of her," the "lost-sheep chorus" barks back in reply.[iv]
[ii] Sharon Ringe, “A Gentile Woman’s Story,” in Letty M. Russell, ed., , 1985).
[iii] IVP New Testament Commentary