When your son plays on a baseball team that loses a lot, you sit in the bleachers thanking God for the mercy rule in sports. If you don’t speak sports, “the mercy rule” ends a competition early when one team has a leading score so large that it is presumed impossible for the other team to catch up. Every parent wants mercy for their child when they face inevitable hurt and loss.
In Matthew 15:22, a Canaanite woman desperate to help her daughter shouts “Lord, have mercy” at Jesus. Kyrie eleison or “Lord, have mercy” is a prayer that has been cried, sung and chanted for centuries by the desperate.
This complicated and difficult story falls after Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being more concerned with adhering to purity rituals and tradition than to God’s commandments to love, honor and respect. Yet, here in Matthew 15, it appears that Jesus is the one who does not want to break from tradition and aid an “unclean,” foreign Gentile.
The Canaanite woman has lost all sense of decorum. She, a woman and a Gentile, approaches Jesus when Gentiles were not to approach Jews and women were not to approach men. Furthermore, she shouts at Jesus (v. 22) when women were to be reserved in public. But her daughter needs healing. “Lord,” she cries, acknowledging Jesus as Messiah, “have mercy” (v. 22) Jesus appears unmoved. Then, his disturbing response: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26).
Jesus refers to the woman as a kynarion in Greek, translated here as “dog,” but known widely throughout the ancient Middle East as an ethnic slur used by Jews against non-Jews. It’s hard to fathom that Jesus would even think such a racist, prejudiced word, let alone speak it. Dog! Yet there it is, recorded in both the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, on the lips of our Prince of Peace.
As tempting as this difficult text may be to avoid, this story is important. The Canaanite woman is undeterred by Jesus’ tactless refusal. She hopes that he will reconsider. After all, Jesus is heard quoting Hosea 6:6 twice in Matthew: “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Mattew 9:13; 12:7).
The Canaanite women’s hope rests in the mercy of God; her belief that there is enough for her and her daughter. She calls out, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And here the story turns. Jesus recognizes her “great faith,” grants her request for healing, and opens his ministry to Gentiles. God’s mercy is extended to all.
Despite “mercy rules” embedded within sports culture, we live in a world where communal mercy is rapidly depleting. Signs posted on Little League and soccer fields remind brash parents that the coaches are volunteers, and the kids are there to have fun. As I write, this week’s national news includes a video of a police dog unleashed on an unarmed Black truck driver, a floating border fence in the Rio Grande, and Russians doubling down on the atrocities they are committing in Ukraine. Lord, have mercy.
Kyrie eleison is a desperate prayer, but not devoid of hope and strength. If we pray for mercy, it means we still believe there is mercy to share, that compassion and empathy can still be inspired. To be vulnerable in the face of all that is hard and harsh, to ask for what you need is a strength that too often goes unacknowledged. The greatest threats are those that close our minds and hearts and build barriers to divide and protect. Faith softens our hearts with empathy, to stand open-hearted, to pray and hope for mercy. May we learn from the Canaanite woman, with faith so vulnerable and bold that it transforms the call of our Messiah.
Questions for reflection:
- Have you read this passage before? If so, how did it strike you in the past? How does it strike you now? What new thoughts, ideas, images emerge as you read this passage today?
- When have you or a loved one needed mercy? Did you pray for mercy? How did that position of prayer feel?
- Eleos or “mercy” is defined as a moral quality of feeling compassion and showing kindness toward someone in need. Where have you witnessed examples of mercy? Who is someone you admire who possesses mercy as a moral quality?