The Canaanite Woman
TEXT: Matthew 15:21-28
The story from the Gospel lesson this morning, where Jesus heals the daughter of a Canaanite woman, is a relatively minor one. There are a lot of stories where Jesus heals, and there are other stories where Jesus heals a Gentile. Probably there would not be a lot of people who remember the story were it not for the fact that the conversation that Jesus has with the woman before the healing seems so out of character for Jesus.
Despite the fact that Jesus lets loose a time or two at the Pharisees and calls them vipers and hypocrites and unwashed tombs, we still expect that when a woman comes to Jesus asking for mercy and the healing of a sick child, she will receive compassion and not abuse...no matter who she is. And so when we get to this passage of Matthew and see Jesus first ignore her completely and then finally say he shouldn't be taking the children's food and throwing it to the dogs, we can't believe what we're reading.
While this story is not a major healing story, it is one of the major stumbling blocks for Christians in the whole New Testament...even in the whole Bible.
So I invite you in the next few minutes to go with me through this past week, as I wrestled through this passage, which has been a difficult one for me as well. We start last Sunday afternoon...the time when I usually jot down my initial impressions and thoughts about the passage for the coming week.
My first impression was that Jesus was tired and was trying to get away for some rest. He had tried back in chapter 14 to get away to a deserted place after learning that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded. But the Bible tells us that the crowds figured out where he had gone and it suddenly was deserted no more. They showed up, 5 thousand strong, and he taught them for three days and then did a miraculous feeding. He follows that with praying all night and caught up with his disciples by walking to them on the water.
By the time they landed on the other shore, at the beginning of chapter 15, the Pharisees were waiting to try to trip him up. He's exhausted, has had little sleep and no time away and now he's getting hammered by the Pharisees about breaking the tradition of the elders. Jesus calls them a bunch of hypocrites and tells them that their traditions violate the essence of the law. Then he takes his disciples aside and teaches them that right and wrong come from the heart, not from outward actions.
But now he REALLY needs to get away and get some rest. Since it's clear he can't even hide out in the wilderness without people finding him by the thousands, he decides to head for Tyre and Sidon...Gentile country...where surely the Jews will not follow. And they don't. But now even the Gentiles are clambering for his attention. Think about Jesus' state of mind and body when this story opens. Think about how you would react. On a strictly human level, Jesus is much nicer to this woman than I probably would have been.
As I thought about that, I remembered my first appointment in rural Florida...Cross City. The area is one of the poorest and most desperate in all of Florida and ranked as the ninth worst educational system in the nation as well as in the top ten nationally for cases of AIDS per capita. I quickly found that I felt more like a missionary than a pastor, dealing daily with the homeless, pregnant teens, illiteracy, bigotry, and domestic violence.
And because I cared and tried to help whoever I could, I soon became more of a parish priest than a pastor to that congregation. People throughout the town, whether they had any connection to my church or any church, came to me crying for help because there were so few resources and fewer people who cared whether these folks lived or died. I did care. But the burden became heavier and heavier. I had been there three years and was completely exhausted.
I found myself remembering the song in Jesus Christ Superstar where Jesus is in a similar state. Just like in the Matthew passage, it's getting close to the end of Jesus' ministry. He is tired and has gone off to a place by himself...or so he thinks until the sick and the poor find him again. You may not like the music, but maybe the harshness of the music can help you relate to the frustration and desperation of Jesus who, being fully human, needs the rest he has been denied. We have all been there. You hear first Jesus in his tiredness singing. Then you hear the needy come in. Then, over the din, you have to listen to hear Jesus singing "There's too many of you--don't crowd me. There's too little of me--don't push me" and then finally in desperation he cries out "Heal yourselves!"
When I was in that place of exhaustion and unceasing demand in Cross City, I played that song. "Tried for three years, seems like thirty..." I cried and cried and cried for a long time. And in the midst of that crying, Jesus' words rang like a bell in the night, "I came only to the lost sheep of Israel." At last I understood. Jesus was God, but God in Jesus had taken on the limitations of human flesh. That meant his ministry had to be limited, because his body was limited. God as spirit could do all things. God in the flesh could work when rested and well-nourished both in body and spirit. I was no different. I needed to limit my ministry, and if the ministry would not be limited, I needed to leave the territory to find rest. I moved to Gainesville.
I think that is the first lesson that this difficult little passage teaches us. Jesus set limits on his ministry, and we can learn from that it is not wrong for us to limit our ministries either, whatever they are. We can do only so much, and we need to set boundaries that are both fair and understandable to others and that nurture and leave breathing room for ourselves.
Having said that, this passage also teaches us that no self-imposed boundary should be so rigid that there is no room for mercy and compassion. For all the seeming harshness of Jesus here, don't lose sight of the fact that he did, in the end, grant the woman her request. He had just lectured the Pharisees about holding so hard to the traditions that there was no room for the loving spirit of the law.
Here, in a Gospel written primarily for a Jewish audience that would completely concur with withholding service from a Gentile, here Jesus shows that while he has a clear boundary -- the lost sheep of Israel -- compassion and faith can set it aside--even for Gentiles. Our lesson is to do the same -- not always, or there's no point in having a boundary, but there will be times when compassion will override the boundary of law.
That was my thinking last Sunday, and I haven't changed my mind about that much. But there is more to the passage...more that is troubling. What about the crack about the dogs. At best Jesus is being politically incorrect...at worst he is a bigot. How do we sort through that? I didn't know, so I went to commentaries. Every last commentary I read on this passage spent the whole time trying to either mitigate or eliminate these words.
Some said Jesus didn't really say it, that somebody added it later. Others focused on the Greek word for "dogs" which here is not the word for the wild scavenging dogs but is the diminutive form for household pets. Those scholars pointed out that Jesus was showing more kindness than the woman would expect from a Jew by at least upgrading the category of dog and finally granting the request.
Not being satisfied with those answers, I went off on my own tangent and started on a search to see if Jesus' harshness to a Canaanite woman might be justified We don't know, after all, that the woman was innocent and we do know that she was a Canaanite and that Canaanite practices were considered barbaric, even by other pagan nations. I spent hours reading about the Canaanites, later more commonly called the Phoenecians. My reading showed me that the practice of child sacrifice had been revived when Alexander the Great besieged the cities of Phoenecia and that it endured into the first century AD in the Phoenecian colonies of Africa...who did constant trade with the Phoenecian cities of Tyre and Sidon, where this woman was from.
Maybe it seemed quite ironic to Jesus that in a culture where children were burned to death as a sacrifice to the evening star that someone would come asking for one to be healed. Maybe he felt her motives were not good...that perhaps she just wanted a whole and pure child so that she would be an acceptable sacrifice to this terrible god. Why did we assume that the harsh response of Jesus was completely unmerited when we didn't know a thing about the woman herself and did know a lot of terrible things about the culture in which she lived?
Well, that's a secondary tangent, but it gave me the question that yeilded the results and if you were looking in the bedroom of the parsonage late Thursday nigh t-- which I sincerely hope you weren't -- you would have seen what looked like a lightning storm with the light going on and off and on and off, over and over as the real meat of the passage began to flow and I kept turning on the light to write down my thoughts.
What I realized was that the most common assumption of all for this passage is that if Jesus actually said those words to the woman, he could not be the God that he claimed to be. The one most frequently condemned by this passage is Jesus, himself, and we have made ourselves and our own righteousness both judge and jury.
And if we think about THAT issue, the Canaanite woman herself smacks us square between the eyes. Try to follow me here. We need to notice that the woman herself gives us no indication that she is offended by anything that Jesus says or does. WE are offended. We have no clue whether SHE is or not. What we do know is that, offended or not, she continues to press her petition to Jesus, and Jesus finally grants her desire and praises her faith.
The important question here is "What faith is that?" Of what does her faith consist? My initial thought was that it was faith in his ability to heal...that he could do it because he was the Son of God. But I saw Thursday night that it was not faith that he COULD heal, but faith that he WOULD heal. It was the faith that said, "This is a kind and loving man who has depth of compassion. If I can call upon that compassion, he will heal...because he cares." It is the faith, not that God exists, not that God is powerful, but the faith that God is love.
That is the faith that Jesus responded to...the one that insisted that no matter what his words sounded like, his essence was still love and compassion. Even if he meant what he said and considered her less than human, he would still have compassion on a dog...he was that good. And that is exactly the faith that we DON'T have when we approach difficult passages of Scripture like this. Our faith only operates within the realm of our understanding. Beyond that we don't trust. If it seems wrong to us, then Jesus is a fraud. Every one of those commentaries had to try to prove that either Jesus didn't really say what he did or that his words were not what they seemed. Why? Because they could not find a way to hold out for Jesus being good and loving, if he said...or even worse, if he meant...those words. And then I went off on a different but similarly faithless tangent to try to prove that the woman somehow deserved what he said.
And while we are playing Bible gymnastics with the text, the Canaanite woman keeps following Jesus with unswerving faith that she will receive love and compassion, because God could provide no less...no matter what the circumstances look like, no matter what the words sound like. The woman of Canaan...the pagan woman from a culture that sacrificed their own children and had orgies to please the gods...she puts the faith of every one of us to shame. Without those harsh words of Jesus and the hard reality of a Gentile dog approaching a Jew for healing, it would not have been faith...it would have been simply the normal expectation.
We are ready to condemn God at the drop of a hat. We accuse God of treating us unfairly, we read passages of Scripture, assume the worst and say things like, "I could never worship a God like that." We don't receive the things from God that we believe we should and we turn our backs on God saying God doesn't love us. We read this passage and are troubled, bringing Jesus down a notch in our inner thoughts.
The Canaanite woman does not. She hears the words, but does not regard them. Perhaps she can see that he speaks from exhaustion. Perhaps she understands that he has quite fairly limited his ministry to his own people. Or perhaps she would rather be a dog in the house of the Lord than a Queen in some other land. But as she looks upon Jesus, she can see beyond the words, to a heart that is purely love. She knows that if she can just look him in the eye, that love will not be able to refuse her request. And she is not wrong.
Do you have faith in Jesus...in God? Not do you believe God exists...not do you believe God is all-powerful, or all-knowing, or omnipresent. Not even do you believe that Jesus died on a Cross to atone for your sins, but do you believe that God is love? Can you hold onto that faith even when the outward circumstances sound or look like something else? Think of a little girl who comes into a room where her mother is standing. "Mommy," she calls. But the mother doesn't respond. What does the girl do? She calls louder. "Mommy!" And in a loving family, she will keep getting louder until the mother turns around and responds. Thoughts that Mommy is ignoring her don't even darken the corners of the girl's mind. Mommy loves me and so if she's not responding it's because she can't hear me...I will make her hear me, because I know she wants to listen to what I have to say. That is the faith of the Canaanite woman. It doesn't matter what Jesus says or does...she knows that deep within this man is God's heart...and that is a heart of love.
Can you run to God, sure of forgiveness because you know that God is love -- or do you stay at a distance fearing judgment and condemnation? Can you read a passage of Scripture that makes you wince and still run willingly and joyously into the loving arms of God? That is the real test of faith, and the woman of Canaan passed with flying colors. The commentators I read this week failed miserably, as did I. How about you?
© 1999, Anne Robertson