The events in this part of Matthew’s gospel take place in the area of Sidon and Tyre, which is modern-day Beirut. It was outside specifically Jewish territory in Jesus’ time, even as it is outside Israel now. What sent him there? Matthew doesn’t really say, but in both his gospel and Mark’s this episode follows a lot of controversy with his opponents and taking a lot of criticism from the religious authorities, and in Mark 7:24 we read that
“He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice.”
In other words, Jesus needed a break. Anybody who is a caregiver or who faces a lot of human need on a regular basis knows the feeling of just wanting to get away for a short while. As one of my social worker friends once said, “You want to go where nobody knows your name.”
There’s a movie from 1991 called What about Bob? where Richard Dreyfus plays a psychiatrist with Bill Murray as “Bob”, a particularly determined and resourceful patient who will not leave him alone even on vacation. Bob tracks down his doctor to a small town where he and his family are staying and demands care. It looks like this:
It’s not all that different from what happened to Jesus.
“Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’” [Matthew 15:22]
Now, this woman’s situation, where she’s looking for help for her daughter, is not the same as Bob’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” All the same, there may have been times that Jesus felt drained by the constant demands for his help, even the most legitimate.
Surely you know someone who is kind and caring and who, because of that, makes a contribution to a charity that puts their name onto their mailing list, and then a few months later other charities begin to send request letters and before too long sorting through appeals of one sort or another are part of the daily routine. If I’m asked about it, and I sometimes am, I generally suggest picking one or two causes that are close to your heart and helping them, while trusting that someone else will cover the others. Jesus tried to do something like that when he said,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” [Matthew 15:24]
At the same time, though, he couldn’t just close his heart to the genuine and persistent love of this mother for her daughter and eventually that won the day for her.
“But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” [Matthew 15:25-28]
“Compassion fatigue” is real. There are recommendations that were put out by a group called “The American Institute for Stress” (you’ve got to love that name!) specifically for medical personnel, for whom it comes up all the time.
Find someone to talk to.
Understand that the pain you feel is normal.
Exercise and eat properly.
Get enough sleep.
Take some time off.
Develop interests outside of medicine.
Identify what’s important to you.
Look for a new job, buy a new car, get a divorce or have an affair.
Fall into the habit of complaining with your colleagues.
Hire a lawyer.
Work harder and longer.
Neglect your own needs and interests.”
All of that is good advice, but I want to add to that another resource that didn’t make it onto that list, one that a certain mother, overwhelmed by her daughter’s needs, was able to find and to access. That is to seek help from Jesus, who made a general offer:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11:28-30]
Jesus models for us all the proper and necessary balance between focused care and general care, between rest and work, between prayer and service, that makes teaching and healing and peacemaking and feeding the hungry and parenting and healthy marriages or relationships of all kinds effective. When things are too extreme, he helps to carry the load; and when the time comes to put things back on us, he knows how to do that, too, in a compassionate way.
Do you know what happened after Jesus had his time away from things, punctuated by this encounter with a mother troubled for her daughter? Matthew says that
“After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.” [Matthew 15:29-31]