I made my first confession last month, and it was easier than I expected. Not that I enjoyed recalling misdeeds from 2010, or that I wasn’t nervous when I stepped away from the parishioners in the middle of Mass that morning in St. Vincent Ferrer and entered the dark quiet of the confessional. But the prerequisite of the sacrament, the mark of penitence, felt natural and right. I know that because if the priest had concluded, “No, sorry, you are not forgiven,” I would have returned to the pew respecting the wisdom of the Church and thought, “Well, maybe next time.” The following Sunday I would have joined in chanting, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” and lined up, crossed my arms, and given thanks for the blessing I would receive a few moments later.
Those of us firm in our unworthiness have a role model for this: the Canaanite woman. In all the Gospels, she’s got to be the most composed and persistent figure Jesus meets in his ministry. To be told by the Lord in whom you believe that you’re no better than a dog, to gaze upon his face and see disdain, well, any person of ordinary bearing would melt with abjection. But not she.
There is no apparent reason for her self-assurance. She isn’t rich, learned, or highborn. Like others who beseech him, she is in need. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David,” she pleads; “my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” That puts her in a long train of faithful, agonized souls that Jesus restores. Those who come to him so devoutly earn his love and walk away mended. Only the unbelievers are denied, the “evil and adulterous generation” mentioned a few verses later, to whom “no sign shall be given.”
There is more to her than misery and faith, however, more force. “And behold,” Matthew begins, “a Canaanite woman came out and cried, ‘Have mercy on me . . .’” She sounds imposing, a little pushy, with none of the deferential air of the centurion and other seekers. You can imagine her nudging other people aside and butting in line to reach the healer first.
Maybe she’s so excited because she’s never heard him before. Jesus has just landed in the area of Tyre and Sidon, and she’s a local person who hasn’t been following him on his mission. She’s a Gentile, in fact, one historically hostile to the Jews (Mark terms her a “Syrophoenician,” a resident of the area and not a Jew). Her exuberant spirit shows that she can recognize him across the social divide. She’s desperate, of course, with a daughter at home in the grip of evil, but her bold address, “O Lord, Son of David,” is also the declaration of a new time for the nations.
But Jesus isn’t in the mood for it. He has just had to contend with scribes and Pharisees who accuse him of violating a sacred law, eating with unclean hands. When he tells his disciples a parable to explain the scribes’ error—“not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth”—they compound his irritation by asking him to explain the parable as well. “Are you also still without understanding?” he sighs (or grumbles). Now, this bold woman pesters him to act. Jesus has had enough and doesn’t bother to reply: “But he did not answer her a word.”
It sounds like a tense interval, one of those scenes everyone eventually undergoes in school or at work, the kind you remember for a long time with a shiver. You were vulnerable and sensitive for some reason that day, and when a higher-up treated you like a silly or errant child, the shame was crushing. A teacher in graduate school insulted me once after I mentioned a bad review of a volume to which she had contributed—I meant it, clumsily, as sympathy, nothing else—and it haunted me for weeks, though I knew she had a reputation for instability. In this drama in Matthew 15, a lord and king shuns a distressed alien woman, and we expect her to slink away mortified.
Thus, when she turns from him and without pause starts bothering the disciples, it’s almost funny. The tension, it turns out, is in us, not in Jesus and not in her. She proceeds to Step 2, bugging the boss’s assistants. It makes for a pleasing reprieve from our embarrassment for her—and for ourselves. The disciples rebuke her, we may assume, but she still isn’t put off. The rest of us are rarely so unswerving, yet it’s entertaining to see it embodied in a character on stage in the greatest story ever told.
“Send her away,” the disciples beg Jesus, “for she is crying after us.” They can’t get rid of her. You can imagine her tugging at their cloaks and bidding for aid as they chide, “Run along, silly woman.” This time Jesus answers, not her but them, clarifying the limits of his project: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” A rejection once more—no Canaanites (or Syrophoenicians) allowed. If his intention is to muffle her, it works. Her demeanor changes; she swings from importunate to meek. But with it comes another sweet irony. Her humility makes her more inescapable than did her previous tenacity. She kneels before him and utters the most basic appeal of all: “Lord, help me.”
This Jesus cannot deny. All her ego is gone, and her particular circumstances, too. Reduced to a single plea for help, she stands for the whole of suffering humanity. She is every person who has a failing child, whom the world has rejected, who has trusted in powers and authorities that proved deaf and uncaring. She is universal, not merely Canaanite, female or male, young or old, blond or brunette. Her bare entreaty overcomes the limitation Jesus has just laid out, the exclusion of all but Israel. He must, he absolutely must, we think, grant her request.
Instead, Jesus utters the cruelest statement of all his time in the world: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
At this point, we don’t register any shock at the severity of our Lord. We’re too immersed in the conversation. We think only of how she will respond. She has bowed to the dirt, but if we assume she has lost her strength and wit, we forget a basic Christian paradox: the “power made perfect in weakness,” as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 12:9. The lower she falls, the easier it is to endure judgment: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10). When you accept your wretched condition, the word dog in the Lord’s mouth doesn’t faze you. You’re not looking for proof that you are not a dog, but only seeking mercy, mercy even for those who have fallen to the level of scavenging animals.
Her comeback is firm. “She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’” The turnaround makes you laugh out loud. Aha, Jesus, you’re a man of images and parables, and now I have one for you!
Of course, he knows quite well the meaning of this parable of the dog and the crumbs. This is not Jesus forgetting himself and needing a reminder of his mission of salvation. It is, instead, a happy opportunity for the Canaanite woman to hollow out her pride and prerogative.
Her example is a lesson for us, particularly those standing outside the confessional. She empties herself of ego, prostrate and suppliant. She is humble but without humiliation, precisely because she is before Jesus. She dares to amend his statement about the dogs because she trusts in his infinite mercy. It is the kind of petition that only those with no insecurities to protect are able to make because they have handed their sins to Jesus confident of his infinitude. Before she kneels, she is annoying and demanding, and even that solemn “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs . . .” may have a touch of drollery. But those passing humors aren’t salient as long as she recognizes his majesty. They make no difference to the outcome, Jesus’s final decision: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you desire.”
Most of us start where the Canaanite woman does, with fumbling words and self-centered hopes. The French have an expression, l’esprit d’escalier (“the wit of the staircase”). It refers to a man at a dinner party who stumbles in conversation and repartee, but as he leaves and walks down the stairs to the street, a few sparkling sallies he might have uttered pop into his head. He wanted the others to judge him arch and scintillating, but he was too self-conscious to play the game well.
God saves us from this chagrin. When we confess, we don’t ask him for anything like that—admiration, approval, social acceptance—only an unmerited succor. When we see ourselves through his eyes, just about everything about us is embarrassing, which means that if we are sincerely repentant, we need not be at all embarrassed in his presence. We aren’t trying to escape or hide our sin. We acknowledge it fully to the Higher Power. In total obedience to him, no more trying to bear our pride, we keep the capacity of immediate response, like the Canaanite woman who doesn’t miss a beat. This is the gift of Confession. For a few minutes, the labor of self-sufficiency stops, the machinations of ego cease, and you are free to absorb the judgments of God, whatever they may be, as your true and proper state of being.