The Canaanite Woman’s Faith
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
At face value, this is a truly shocking passage for several reasons. What disturbed you the most? Jesus’ lack of care for the woman? His racism? His below-the-belt name-calling? His being taught a lesson by a non-Jewish woman? Maybe it’s God seeming forced to change his mind on a huge issue after a chat with an irate human? As responsible Bible-readers we must concur: when it seems too mad to be correct, then it is probably not what it seems.
Acting like an ass is a classic teaching strategy. Forgive me, but when I was teacher I used to say all sorts of mad things to elicit more creative thinking in my pupils. These lessons usually began with something like, “You know, girls, Hitler had a pretty good point when he…”
The truly worrying thing about this passage is not that is a bit racist, it’s that none of his disciples are disturbed by it. We are commanded to have no other gods beside the Lord, but we are not commanded to turn off our brain and/or compassion.
Matthew’s gospel is full of issues of race and religion. He has a tortured relationship with his own Jewishness. The voice betrays one who cherishes the legacy of God’s Chosen People. We feel the author’s humble gratitude for the covenant offered by Almighty God and we observe his wonder at the unfolding of a divine plan across centuries. It is because these things are so precious to him that the author is enraged by Jewish intellectuals who miss the mark. This story of the Canaanite woman who knows God’s will is preceded by Jesus engaging in an argument with Jewish teachers about the paralysing human traditions that have obscured it over the years. As one who is “genetically” Church of Ireland, I understand something of Matthew’s paradoxical instinct to glory in the riches of his own religious tradition while at the same time wanting to demolish the whole thing and start again.
This encounter appealed to Matthew because Jesus feigned a kind of ignorance which exposed a deeply embedded seam of racial sectarianism in the hearts of the disciples. He also exposed the limitations they placed on God’s grace. This cliché about feeding the children before the dogs spoke to an audience of starving people in an economy of subsistence agriculture. Their experience taught them that there is not enough in this world to go round and that it is necessary to prioritise members of household. The logical progression is to believe that God’s grace is yet another resource in high demand and limited supply. The disciples may not have been entirely comfortable with calling the woman a dog and casting her away, but they certainly felt there was enough justification for this action that they didn’t protest. It’s the story Matthew loves to hate: a group of well-meaning Jews who forget that the point of being chosen is to be a blessing to the world around them.
The woman has a strong enough instinct about God to believe she is part of the household, even if her people are just the pet dogs. I don’t believe her people had less value in God’s eyes, but I do believe that she showed admirable faith, humility and wisdom to understand, despite the impression these holy men gave, that she was loved and that even the scraps of God’s love are worth fighting for.
I wonder how frustrated Matthew was to think the disciples could believe in such an ungenerous God? I wonder was he delighted to discover one other person who knew the generous God revealed to him in the Jewish Scriptures? I wonder was he more astonished or frustrated that she had come know this God through a gentile experience of the world while the disciples had misunderstood the Lord despite having access to all the Jewish wisdom and ritual?
The Jews vs. Gentiles dichotomy stands in today for any kind of Them vs. Us. So, are you brave enough to dive in for the scraps of love that someone says you don’t deserve? Have you been making someone feel like the dog(s) in the household? Have you absorbed enough of Jesus’ generosity to become uncomfortable when his church is being uncharacteristically cold? And could you stand against it? Who are the most religiously pleasing to God, and the least, in your eyes, and how confident are you about that assessment? What standards are you measuring tribes by? Let me humbly offer these questions for your reflection, acknowledging that in my own heart I have much prejudice to repent of.
It’s no accident that a story about the struggle to find enough bread to feed the kids is followed by the miraculous feeding of 4000. The message is clear: there is enough of God’s grace to around the right people and the wrong ones.
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.