All week long, I’m writing about the encounter of Jesus and the Canaanite woman who seeks healing for her demon-possessed daughter in Matthew 15. Yesterday, I wrote about the need to take Jesus’ cruelty seriously. Since he’s Jesus, it would be easy to dismiss his racist behavior out of hand as something surely not as bad as it seems. But it is as bad as it seems! Now, I’ll spend the rest of the week trying to figure out how to make sense of this absolutely unbelievable encounter.
Today, I’d like to focus on geography. Let’s start where the story starts—in Gennesaret. Although it no longer exists, Gennesaret was a seaside community on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Remember, last week, Jesus walked out on the water to rescue the disciples, whom he had sent “to the other side” after feeding the 5,000 (Matt. 14:22). And, going back another week, remember that he had fed the 5,000 in a desolate place that he had reached by boat while trying unsuccessfully to escape the crowds (Matt. 14:13). And, going back even further, we see that Jesus had been in his hometown of Nazareth, which is not on the coast. There he had taught the people some perplexing parables but was not well received (Matt. 14:53ff.). So, he started at his home town, walked to the coast, went by boat to a lonely place (probably on the southern shore), sent the disciples north toward Gennesaret, walked out toward them, and rode with them in the boat until they made it to Gennesaret.
map from https://www.blueletterbible.org/assets/images/study/pnt/maps/palestine/gennesaret.jpg
Why is that important? Because Matthew tells us that they left Gennesaret and went toward the region of Tyre and Sidon—even further north. In Jesus’ time, Tyre and Sidon, which are in present-day Lebanon, were not in Jewish territory. This was Gentile country. It was further away from Jerusalem. In other words, it was moving in the wrong direction. And, even more importantly, they didn’t just leave Gennesaret—they retreated from it.
The Greek word that is translated as “went away” is “ἀνεχώρησεν,” which is a form of the verb that literally means “to withdraw…[as] those who through fear seek some other place” (see greekbible.com). Matthew also uses this word to describe the movement of Jesus and his disciples in 4:12: “Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.” It might be an exaggeration to say that Jesus was “running scared” when he headed north toward Tyre and Sidon, but it’s clear that he wasn’t going there on purpose. It was a detour. It was a retreat. It was an out-of-the-way, not-where-we-want-to-go trip. And that’s what’s going on in Jesus’ mind when he is approached by the Gentile woman.
Have you ever been so focused on the task at hand that you miss an opportunity that is even more important? The other day I was hurrying to get somewhere. People were waiting on me. I needed to rush to meet them so that we could all start on the work that was ahead of us. Someone approached me in the parking lot and asked to speak with me. Feeling the pinch of my other commitment, I said, “This will have to be quick. I’m in a hurry.” I didn’t call her a Canaanite dog-woman, but I might as well have. My gruffness had less to do with her than with the hurry I was in. She wasn’t on my to do list. The people who were waiting on me had my complete attention. She was in the way. She was a distraction. She was holding me up. And I missed the chance to minister to her because of my one-track focus.
Maybe Jesus was upset about being pushed northward by the Pharisees who were angry about what he said. Maybe Jesus felt like he was going in the wrong direction. Maybe Jesus was trying to figure out how he could get his countercultural message through to the people he came to save. When the Gentile woman came up to him, she was in the way. She was distraction. She was holding him up.
In the end, of course, Jesus discovers that even this non-Jew in a non-Jew territory had the kind of faith he was looking for. I think she surprised him. I think she said something to get his attention. I think he had an aha! moment when he realized that there was important, valuable ministry to be done even if it was off track. That doesn’t excuse the cruel way he treated this woman in need, but it helps me understand what was going through his mind. And that helps me remember to look for opportunities for ministry that aren’t on my to do list.