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The Canaanite Woman

Scripture - 15:21-28

Some people find this passage distressing, because it seems to present Jesus as responding in an uncompassionate way to the cry for help of a Gentile woman. His initial response is simply to ignore her. Yet when she persists & he is compelled to react, his words strike us as unduly harsh & insensitive: It is not good to take the children’s bread & toss it to dogs. Although it is not true that Jews used the epithet ‘dog’ primarily in reference to Gentiles, the context of the saying certainly suggests that the people whom Jesus normally heals are children - & the Gentiles, represented by this bold woman, are by contrast dogs; that is, subhuman & undeserving of God’s concern.

There are 3 main ways of interpreting this verse & its context. The first & easiest method is simply to treat it as inauthentic. So, it is proposed that the saying was credited to Jesus by conservative Jewish Christians who were opposed to the Gentile mission. Their prejudice found expression in this harsh statement, which was then invested with Jesus’ authority by being set in an occasion in which he was represented as refusing to minister to Gentiles. The story, according to this interpretation, was later ‘corrected’ by someone favorable to the Gentile mission, who supplied a happy ending. The woman, instead of being sent away, was able to win Jesus’ praise for her response to his statement & was rewarded with the healing of her daughter.

A second approach treats the story as authentic but states that Jesus’ behavior is not as harsh as modern readers might think. The saying may have been a proverb that was no more offensive than our adage, “Charity begins at home.” The Greek word for dogs found here is rarely used & referenced household pets & therefore is not to be seen as abusive. The problem is, Jesus’ Aramaic contained no such term. It is further suggested that Jesus’ statement is not to be seen as his final word to the woman but as a test of her faith. Since she passes the test, he grants her request.

The third interpretation insists on accepting the story as it stands in all its harshness. The episode presents Jesus as a Jewish man of his day, chauvinistic towards women & non-Jews. His limited perspective is in part corrected by the clever retort of a desperately bold woman, who convinces him that Gentiles must also share in God’s bounty.

Unfortunately, all 3 interpretations are conjecture. We lack the supporting evidence that would allow a firm choice of one over the others. Possibly each contains a kernel of truth. There is every reason to believe that some of the stories about J were edited to conform with the convictions of the storytellers. It is possible, therefore, that Jesus’ behavior toward the Gentile woman was not as insensitive as the storytellers “remembered.” On the other hand, Jesus was capable of speaking firmly – harshly from our perspective – when he felt the situation demanded it. In 8:22, Jesus tells one perspective follower: Follow me, & let the dead bury their own dead. Jesus was so convinced of the urgency of his work that we can readily believe he told his messengers not to indulge in casual conversations with Jewish men they met along the road. (That is in Luke 10:4.) In view of such restrictions, it is also credible that he avoided contacts with Gentiles, for whom he felt no responsibility. Whether or not the saying in v. 24 belonged originally to this occasion – it is missing in Mark 7 – it probably reflects accurately Jesus’ self-understanding: I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.

There is no contradiction between such a self-understanding & the statement of 8:11 concerning the place of Gentiles in the kingdom of God. There, Jesus said: I say to you that there are many who will come from east & west & sit down to eat with Abraham & Isaac & Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. Like other faithful Jews of his day, Jesus undoubtedly accepted as true the scriptural prophecies that in the last days Gentiles would stream to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel. The conversion of such Gentiles would be affected by divine miracle. Prior to that time, however, repentance had to be preached to Israel while the opportunity for repentance remained. There was great urgency, & the energy of the messengers must not be wasted.

Why, then, did Jesus go into the Gentile territory of Tyre & Sidon? It is often argued that this was a strategic withdrawal to escape his enemies. But if Jesus had really wanted to evade pursuers, he would have avoided populated areas & hidden himself in the hills. No, if Jesus truly made such a journey, it was undoubtedly to minister to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. A large Jewish population was to be found north of the Galilean border in the political territories of Tyre & Sidon.

Verse 24 must reflect historical fact. This episode, & the account of the Capernaum centurion & possibly that concerning the Gadarene demoniac, are the only times in which Jesus ministers to Gentiles. Each is clearly exceptional. Since all the Gospels were written for churches that were predominately Gentile in membership, we can assume that the writers would have wished to include as much as possible about Jesus’ concern for Gentiles. People like Paul who championed the Gentile mission could find little support in the ministry of Jesus. Paul was able to make theological sense of this limitation: I’m saying that Christ became a servant of those who are circumcised for the sake of God’s truth, in order to confirm the promises given to the ancestors. (Rom 15:8) So, Christ’s single-minded devotion to his own people was a manifestation of God’s faithfulness to his promises.

So, what does Matthew make of this occasion? Like Mark, he places it immediately after a dispute about food & purity laws. This suggests that, just as Jesus places a higher importance on ethics rather than obedience to the law, anticipating the law-free acceptance of the Gentiles, so the Gentile woman represents the vast number of non-Jews who were to become members of the church. Whereas Mark refers to her as Greek, Syrophoenician by birth, Matthew suggests she belongs culturally not to the Hellenized populations of the cities of Tyre & Sidon but to the rural people. She is Canaanite, a representative of the despised “half-breed’ population with which Israel was not supposed to fraternize. The title with which she addresses Jesus, Son of David, marks her as the first of the Gentile believers.

It is this emphasis on faith that most distinguishes Matthew’s version of the occasion from Mark’s. In Nazareth, it was stressed that J refused to do many mighty works because of their lack of faith. Jesus was no ordinary physician dispensing wonder drugs to any who could pay him; a relationship of faith was required. Whereas this may well have been implicit in Mark’s version, Matthew makes it explicit. It is only because of the woman’s faith that Jesus heals her daughter.

In this case, the believing Gentile poses a sharp contrast to the unbelieving Pharisees & scribes from Jerusalem of the verses preceding. Whereas Jesus is rejected by fellow Jews, Gentiles are able to recognize him as their Lord, who has mercy on them & exorcizes the demon of paganism so that they can join the children at God’s table. There are possible eucharistic overtones in the reference to sharing bread, but I do not want to overstress this, since Matthew himself says nothing about it.

What comfort & guidance can we draw from this passage? It reminds us, first, that we are, as Krister Stendahl has suggested, merely “honorary Jews.” To us the woman’s response sounds subservient; she seems to accept the role of dogs for Gentile believers. Yet Matthew probably saw her humility as a necessary ingredient of her faith; it was appropriate that she acknowledge the historical - & therefore theological – priority of God’s election of Israel. Paul reminds us in Romans 11 that it is by grace alone that we have been admitted to the ranks of God’s saved & historical people. We have no right to demand the help of Israel’s Messiah. Like the Canaanite woman, we humbly beg his mercy.

Second, the passage reminds us that members of despised or oppressed groups must be bold in seeking relief of their misery. The woman is not content to be ignored, because she is convinced that her daughter deserves to be given a chance at living a normal, productive life. Her persistence, based on her faith in a God who can change things for the better, is rewarded.

This part of the reading certainly speaks to our world today. What we are seeing played out in our cities, & in cities all around the world, are cries for relief. Not every protest or protestor is going about it in the proper way, but people of color in America are once again standing up & demanding justice. They are no longer content to be ignored because they are convinced that their children & grandchildren deserve to be given an equal chance to live normal, productive lives. And those who base their claims on faith in a God who can change things for the better, I believe & trust will be rewarded. And I am willing to work alongside them to see that happen. What about you?

Even in the midst of apparent tragedy, God’s love gathers up the fragments of our lives. Even in the midst of apparent rejection, God’s faithfulness rescues us from despair. Even when we feel abandoned & alone, God calls us to find strength for the journey. Even in the midst of strife, God calls us to look beyond our differences & live together in unity. Therefore, let us thank the Lord using this litany.

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