Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly. -Matthew 15:22-28
As freely as the firmament embraces the world, or the sun pours forth impartially his beams, so mercy must encircle both friend and foe. - Friedrich Schiller 1759-1805
Who is learning the message of mercy here? Some commentators write that Jesus purposefully ignores the Canaanite woman to draw her into boldness. Others suggest this encounter marks the turning point in Jesus' own consciousness, confronting his limited perception of the wider mission at hand. I favor the second interpretation, that Jesus grows in mercy and compassion as he meets the deepening challenges of his ministry.
This year I found myself drawn to the woman's prayer for mercy.
Mercy is an attribute of God aspired to by human beings (Meditation One). God/Mercy sends Christ to be born among us (Meditation Two) which makes Jesus' own expanding sense of mercy more poignant. Faithfulness demands basic acts of mercy and human loving-kindness (Meditation Three). Meeting the challenges of mercy expands the boundaries of compassion. Perhaps, this continual growing in compassion is the reason for living.
The quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown; His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God's When mercy seasons justice.
-William Shakespeare The Merchant of Venice 4:1 (Portia)
This page from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, shows Jesus in two attitudes toward the Canaanite woman. At first he rejects her. Are his companions pleading on her behalf and looking upon her with sympathy? Or are they trying to convince Jesus not to deal with her? The tensions seem resolved in the lower scene.
Miscellany Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant-- these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
The Canaanite Woman, Jean Columbe, Tres Riches Heures, 1485-89
Meditation Two (insight) Mercy kindled on high
Mercy was kindled on high, at the voice of Creation that cried out: — Gabriel was sent; he came and gave tidings of Your Conception. — When You came to the Birth, Watchers gave tidings of your coming forth.
-Ephrem the Syrian c.306-373 Nativity Hymns of Ephraim Syrus, 15:36
Meditation Three (integration) works of mercy
The corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry give drink to the thirsty clothe the naked house the homeless visit the sick ransom the captive bury the dead
-traditional church teaching based on Matthew 25:34-46, Tobit 1:16-22 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
- Matthew 5:7
The Last Word
The boldness of our love is pleasing to you, O Lord, just as it pleased you that we should steal from your bounty.
— Ephrem the Syrian c.306-373 Hymns on Faith 16:5
Lord Jesus Christ,
Have mercy on me.
-The Jesus Prayer
She is a woman. A foreigner. A pagan. Unclean.
He belongs to the chosen people.
She has means, independence, and a crackling intelligence.
He is an illegitimate, itinerant rabbi.
She has a daughter possessed by a demon. She needs him.