‘Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”’
I find it very interesting that Jesus is here replying to His disciples, not to the Canaanite woman. Jesus could seem to be agreeing with them and dismissing the woman. But if we look at Jesus’ words in the Greek of St. Matthew’s Gospel, we see a different story.
Jesus says, “I was sent,” which is the same Greek verb from which we get the word apostle. In other words, Jesus was sent for the lost sheep of Israel, and He will send other apostles out to the rest of humanity. These same disciples addressed by Jesus in this passage will become His Apostles to all nations. In the larger context of Matthew 15 as a whole chapter, Jesus seems to be rebuking his disciples for their lack of compassion and their parochialism (caring only for their own tribe). He is using a common Rabbinical teaching method to test the Canaanite woman (feigning disinterest and quoting Scripture to test her resolve), which they are interrupting. She is proving herself to be one of the lost sheep of Israel by her demonstration of humility and faith in Jesus. They are proving themselves to be poor students in this moment. For Jesus to compliment the faith of a pagan woman in front of them is a quiet rebuke of their self-absorption.
The disciples wanted to send her away; Jesus wanted to invite her closer. They want to be freed of an annoyance; He wants to elevate and draw attention to the dignity of a person worthy of love. Lest we be too harsh toward the disciples, let us recall that many of them would later give their lives to bring the Gospel to foreign lands and peoples. They learned the lesson from this encounter; healthy shame can often steer us in the right direction.
It is the humility and perseverance in prayer of the Canaanite woman that we are meant to emulate. When God seems to be resistant to our prayers, we are called to reexamine our hearts, and if our pleas are honest, humble, and true, to persevere in our petitions until we receive the graces we seek. Likewise, we are to be attentive to the prayers of others, regardless of their background. Converts often make great Saints, given the opportunity. May we have the compassion of Jesus in reaching out to lost sheep, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to return from our own wanderings.