For me, this is one of the most difficult passages in the Gospels. How can Jesus say this to this woman in pain? Below is my feeble attempt to reconcile His love with His words.
In a sense, this reminds me of the two times Jesus calls his mother “Woman” and the times she comes to visit or rescue him and he rebuffs her. There is that same laser focus on The Hour, hearing the word and keeping it, caring for each other. You let the dead bury the dead, you keep plowing straight ahead and do not look behind. Here also, it is the focus on the Kingdom to be preached to the house of Israel.
Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. [Mt 8:10] The Centurion’s faith, though manifested in a slightly different way, parallels and prefigures this woman’s faith. Both are pagan Gentiles; both have heard of Jesus; both are driven by a great need to have their daughter or son/servant healed; both have absolute faith, absolute belief that Jesus can heal their loved one; both approach Jesus with this request; while in the Lk and Mt versions, he cites the parallels between the temporal chain of command and the spiritual, in John, he is initially rebuffed by Jesus who states: Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe, [Jn 4:48] just as the woman is rebuffed; both are persistent in their plea; both show great faith; both the daughter and son are cured.
This still begs the question: Did Jesus let slip a racial slur? And, if so, how could He, since He was without sin? Was it said in innocence, it just came out as part of the unconscious lingua franca, the patois, the jargon of the dialect. I was raised to not only be racially tolerant but to promote racial equality back in the stone age before the equal rights act, the million man march, “I have a dream,” and the riots and the civil rights movement. I was arrested for working with the NAACP in John Birch country in Aurora, Ill, trying to quell potential civil unrest in the “ghetto” following MLK’s assassination.
Yet, much later in life, when I was working for an Episcopalian Outreach Center under a wonderfully patient and holy African-American priest, I inadvertently used a phrase in our conversation to which I had never paid attention, never averted to before as being racially biased, but as soon as it came out of my mouth, I was horrified at what I had done. While I don’t remember what I did immediately thereafter, I should have apologized profusely; in any event, I also don’t recall whether He graciously forgave me or, since I do not recall him calling attention to my egregiously hurtful faux pas, accepted the verbal blow, chalked it up to cultural and social sinfulness and chose to overlook the incident rather than make an issue of it, an act of kindness and forgiveness for which I am eternally grateful. Indeed, we remain friends to this day. But it caught me up short that the residue of prejudice tainted me, whether I was aware of it, fostered it, meant it or not. It is part of the concupiscence, weakening of human awareness, the socially sin-filled pall that blankets society to which we are all subject and guilty and that we all inherit from Adam.
It can be objected that Jesus was not subject to such concupiscence, such weakening. I concur. But was he showing us that he who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin [Heb 4:15] realized that prejudice was a part of the human condition, that one could without malice inadvertently [though he did not do so] express prejudice without sin as long as the intent to hurt was not present and that, upon realization of one’s harmful error, one re-asserts the victim’s brotherhood and rectifies the situation.
From the perspective of the woman, we learn (a) great humility in addition to great faith, accepting at face value the rebuff and turning it back into a positive argument for Jesus’ acquiescence, and (b) a gentle lesson in non-violent protest. It reminds me of a story about Mother Teresa who went into a shop in Calcutta and asked the shop-keeper for food for her starving children. He spit in her face. “Thank you for your gift to me. Now could you spare some food for my children.” Jesus, Himself, when He was in a similar situation during his trial before the Sanhedrin, replied to the guard in this manner: If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me? [Jn 18:23] In the end, we must remember that after suffering calumny, injustice, torture, scourging, ridicule and derision, mockery and betrayal, and being condemned by his own people, Jesus found the forgiving strength to pray: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” [Lk 23:34]
Throughout his ministry, Jesus never does anything that isn’t in obedience to his Father’s will; He always knows exactly what He is doing and saying. When He says things to test people, He does it because he himself knew what he was going to do. [John 6:6] Thus, we cannot chalk this remark to the woman up to a momentary lapse of civility; Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He was testing the faith of the woman in a way she would understand and to which she could respond, while He was, simultaneously, asserting the primacy of the House of Israel as the initial focus of his ministry. His ultimate acquiescence to her plea is not only a precedent to his followers to affirm their later ministry to the Gentiles but also a proof that faith was to be found in all people, even deeper faith than those of the Chosen.
Perhaps, then, it was these lessons that He wished to teach through this rather harsh encounter: (a) that if we are the recipient, the butt of a racial or other slur, we remember with Paul that love is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. [1 Cor: 13: 5-7]; (b) that the best way to non-violently protest such disparaging remarks, even ridicule or slander, is to be assertive, not aggressive, it to humbly reply with the truth; (c) that not all racial slurs bear malice; and finally (d) that when we do recognize that we have hurt the other, we must immediately apologize, listen closely with the heart and alleviate the pain, thus reasserting the tarnished equality of the other and engaging with the other again as a brother or sister.
I am not you, Jesus. I am not in control of my concupiscence. I do not always do the Father’s will. Guide me, Holy Spirit, to watch my tongue, to be aware of my frailty, to be cognizant of my immersion in the Social Sin of society, to be constantly on guard of my prejudices, my temper, my ill-will. Turn my faults and failings to good, helping me learn from my sinfulness and, with Your help, Your grace, Your guidance, not fall, at least not so often. Thank You. Amen. Alleluia!!!
 Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.