Today’s Holy Gospel begins with the words, “And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon,” (St. Matthew 15:21).
This highlights one of the troubles of jumping into a story halfway through. Where did Jesus depart from and why is it noteworthy that He was going into Tyre and Sidon? We’ll start with the second question: Tyre and Sidon is where the Canaanites lived. Jesus was Jewish, and the Jews tended to stay on their side of the tracks. If you know anything about the Old Testament, you know the Canaanites were pretty much public enemy #1. Why in the world would Jesus be going there? This made almost as much sense as God sending Jonah to Nineveh. Can anything good come from Canaan?
In other words, there had to be a pretty darn good reason for Jesus to go there. We find that reason earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus’ ministry to this point has been focused on Israel, and it hasn’t exactly been going well. His sermon on the Mount didn’t win Him many friends among the religious elite. That’s often what happens when you show someone up, as Jesus did with His preaching. St. Matthew tells us that when Jesus finished His sermon, “the crowds were astonished at His teaching, for He was teaching them as One who had authority, and not as their scribes,” (7:29). Ouch. Strike one.
No sooner did Jesus put the final “Amen” on His sermon than did the opposition increase. Demons began to oppress people violently. You might think the demons would run from Jesus, but they’re not that smart. Instead, they launch an all-out assault (ch. 8–9).
So Jesus counterattacks by sending out the Twelve to continue His work of healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers and casting out demons (10:8). Jesus is only one person, after all, so by sending out the Twelve He can multiply His efforts. Incidentally, that’s one of the reasons He has called you into His Church: that you might declare the glory of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9), in both word and deed.
The pep talk He gives the Twelve before sending them out is interesting. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, that’s for sure. It’s “I’m sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves,” (10:16). But “have no fear of them,” Jesus says. “All they can do is kill the body. They can’t touch your soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” (10:28). Like Christ, those who follow Jesus go the way of the cross, and Jesus wants us to be ready.
Things wouldn’t be any easier John the Baptist than they were for the Twelve. Long gone were the days of feasting on locusts and wild honey in a comfy wilderness-home. Now we find John in prison (11:2). After all, from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force (11:12). Opposition to God’s reign in Christ came both from man and demonic beast. There was no joy among the people when He preached the Gospel: He played the flute and they didn’t dance (11:17). They were too busy with other priorities to care about that religious mumbo-jumbo. Nor was there any sorrow over sin: He sang a dirge, and they did not mourn (11:17).
Worse still, they accuse Jesus of being a gluttonous alcoholic (11:19). As you might expect, Jesus’ next sermon isn’t very gentle. He began to denounce the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida, saying it would be better on the day of judgment for Tyre, Sidon, and even Sodom than it would be for them.
But there’s little repentance, and the opposition only continues to increase. Everywhere He turns, Jesus has the Pharisees breathing down His neck. They didn’t like His preaching, and now He’s breaking their precious traditions. Strike two. The nerve, healing men on the Sabbath! (12:1–14). If you’re unlucky enough to get sick on the Sabbath, that’s just too bad. You can take your medicine the other six days of the week. But on the Sabbath, God wants you to suffer. Well, that’s what the Pharisees taught, at least. So they went out and conspired against Jesus, how to destroy Him (12:14).
Things reach something of a breaking point in chapter 13, so Jesus begins preaching in parables. We often think about parables as “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning”, but Jesus thought of them as a way to confirm the wicked in their sin. Remember Jesus’ explanation of the parables?
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them,'” (St. Matthew 13:11–15).
Sin is like Russian Roulette. You might pull the trigger seven times and be okay, but if the bullet’s next up in the chamber, it’s game over. That’s what sin is like. You don’t know when it will destroy your faith or even if it will, but it certainly can. It’s not something you want to mess with. God always desires to show mercy, but those with hardened hearts won’t have it. Be on guard, therefore, and repent before it’s too late.
Jesus tells the parables to call those who do have ears to repentance. The parables aren’t cute religious stories. They have a dark side. In the parable of the Sower, three-fourths of the Seed never bears fruit. The parable of the weeds teaches us that many hypocrites and evil people are mingled into the Church in this life (AC VIII). Jesus tells these parables with the Pharisees in mind. Not exactly the best way to make friends.
After Jesus finishes the parables, He learns about the beheading of His friend John. Jesus once again withdrew from the crowds to be by himself, but it wasn’t long before a sizeable crowd had gathered. Five thousand, in fact, besides women and children. Always compassionate, Jesus puts the needs of the crowds before His own and feeds them all.
Not long after that, some more Pharisees and Scribes hunt Jesus down and accuse Him of breaking more of their precious traditions. This time it was over hand washing, clearly something that God gets really worked up about. This prompts some more harsh words from Jesus, calling them hypocrites, blind guides, and idolaters. After He’s finished, the disciples come to Jesus, apparently shocked by His bluntness. They ask Him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” Strike three. To which Jesus responds:
“Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit,” (Matthew 15:13–14).
Which brings us, at last, to today’s text. There’s no peace and quiet for Jesus. If it’s not His enemies from Jerusalem trying to pick a fight with Him, it’s the sick and demon possessed in need of healing.
It makes sense, then, why Jesus would withdraw to Tyre and Sidon. Jews weren’t likely to go there, so maybe if Jesus went there, He’d finally get some peace and quiet. No such luck. No sooner does Jesus enter that region than does He hear a familiar cry: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon,” (15:22). What’s not so familiar is that this came from an unlikely source, a Canaanite woman.
You could understand if Jesus were more than a little tired and crabby by this point. And at first glance, He even seems to take out His frustrations on this woman. First He ignores her, then He refuses to help, and finally, He insults her, comparing her to a dog.
But remarkably, that’s not at all what’s happening here. Despite all Jesus has been through, He’s concerned above all else with this woman’s welfare, even as He had continually put the needs of the sick, the hungry, and even His enemies, before His own. This isn’t Jesus being irritable – He’s strengthening her faith by testing it. Jesus once asked His disciples after many had turned away: do you want to go, too? Though the way of the cross is never easy, faith responds by saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” (John 6:66–68).
Jesus wasn’t going to Tyre and Sidon for peace and quiet; He went there for the same reason He went anywhere: to call sinners to repentance and look for the faithful wherever they may be found. Jesus compares himself to a woman who tore her whole house apart looking for her lost coin. Everyone is valuable to Jesus, even the most notorious sinner, even the Canaanite woman, even you.
Has it ever seemed like God was ignoring you? Has He refused to give you what you asked for, or even placed some unbearable-seeming burden on you? Then you’re in good company with this Canaanite woman. She knew what it felt like to be ignored, rejected, and burdened by God. But her trials led her to an ever-greater dependence on God’s mercy and greater hope. And, as the Apostle says, “Hope does not put us to shame.” The healing that the woman’s daughter received was actually the lesser miracle here. The greater miracle was the fact that her faith endured and was even strengthened through her trials. She hoped against hope, and hope in Christ never disappoints.
Above all else, God is concerned with your welfare. Consider Jesus, who knows what it’s like to be ignored and rejected by God in a way that neither you nor the Canaanite will ever know. As self-giving as Jesus was by taking the time to heal, feed, teach, and cast out demons despite everything else that was going on, we see His greatest act of self-giving love when He gave up His life on the cross. That is God’s ultimate “yes” to your every prayer for comfort and healing.
As much as the things you experience might shake your faith, the cross assures you of God’s never-failing love. The cross is the ultimate proof that you can trust God to use all things – even the unpleasant things – for your benefit. Those who wrestle with God, like Jacob did through the night or the Canaanite woman did with Jesus, never leave empty handed. Are you weary and burdened? In need of the Lord’s blessing? Look no farther. It’s right here, in flesh and blood, on the altar.
Soli Deo Gloria