THE CAANANITE WOMAN
Proper 15, A
Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8
Matthew 15: 10-28
The lesson from Matthew today is odd and somewhat disturbing. In the first section, Jesus is doing his usual radical re-evaluation of the religious beliefs and practices of his day. He claims the Pharisees are “blind guides of the blind” who will of necessity fall into a pit.
He goes on to tell the crowd that it is not what goes into the mouth, but what comes out of it that defiles a person. Now, this was incredibly radical, because in that day the purity laws of the religious authorities were many and strict. They went far beyond the business of not eating pork. If you know any Jews today who keep a kosher household you’ll have some idea of how complicated it gets to follow all the rules.
Jesus cuts through all that and says, It is not what goes in that defiles, it is what comes out, for what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what may defile you. When the disciples don’t get it, he explains it in a very literal fashion.
This part makes sense to our generation. But what are we to think of the story of the Caananite woman. Only a few verses later, Jesus is first ignoring this woman, and then essentially calls her a dog. What is this coming out of his mouth? Why?
Let’s see if we can figure it out. First, try to put yourself in the place of the woman. Remember she is a Caananite, which means pagan. She is female, which puts her somewhere below the cattle in her village. She shows up because she has a daughter who is “tormented by a demon.” She’s asking for healing for this daughter, not even a son.
How do we understand what that might be like? Well, think of a Mom whose child is seriously depressed. . . or maybe a Mom whose teen ager is showing signs of what we would call schizophrenia and claims to hear voices. . . . or a daughter who is bipolar. A miracle healing is her best and only hope, and she’s obviously heard about Jesus.
When she comes shouting after him, Jesus does nothing and the disciples do their usual – they tell him to send her away.
Jesus says to them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When she kneels before him and begs for help again, he says to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Wow! Now it’s known that it was common among the Jews to call the Caananites “dogs.” But Jesus? This insult right to her face is about like calling a woman a bitch.
We have no way of knowing what tone of voice Jesus used here. Somehow, when I read it for the first time this week, it reminded me of how I felt and sometimes spoke when I’d had a three year old hanging on me or talking at me for hours. Was Jesus just sick of everyone wanting from him? Of everyone begging for something from him. Was he just tired of it all?
I’ve had two interesting debates about this reading in the last few days, and it seems to depend on how you view Jesus; whether you think he was so perfect that he couldn’t ever do anything wrong or whether you think he was fully human and had to struggle with the same things we do.
One friend said that no matter what the story says, Jesus could do no wrong – that is, he would be incapable of speaking unkindly or sharply no matter how tired or fed up he might feel. My problem is that if I take that approach I have no explanation that makes sense to me for what is reported here.
The woman is too desparate to take offence at anything Jesus says, and she’s quick witted enough to come back with a very clever reply. When Jesus say to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” she comes right back with, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She’s willing to accept the down position in which he has cast her to further her plea.
I think that besides being clever, this quick reply sort of wakes Jesus up to what he has been doing. “Woman, great is your faith!” and her daughter is healed.
When I said I thought that this woman taught Jesus something (meaning, that even gentiles could be people of faith and were deserving of his mercy), another friend said, “Oh no, my Christology is too high to go there.” I assume that meant that Jesus had no need to learn anything, that he knew it all already.
Then why does the author of Matthew put this story right after the one about defilement? All the gospels do things differently and in various sequences. At least if the stories had occurred far apart, I would not think that perhaps Jesus is demonstrating exactly what he just preached against. I know from experience that that happens to us human preachers!
Another consideration: back in Chapter 10, Matthew tells us that Jesus sent his disciple out to spread the good news with these instructions: “Go nowhere among the gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Even the language is the same as what Jesus says here. But at the very end of this Gospel, the last speech of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples includes this: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Moreover, there are plenty of comments in the prophets that suggest that Israel was to set an example to all the others – that their God, the God of Israel, was also to be the God of everyone. It’s probably not a coincidence that today’s Old Testament lesson is one of those. Third Isaiah is speaking to the Jews returning from exile in Babylon.
“Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”
Our orthodox faith says that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. I don’t know how we can prove it either way, but I know that my bias is toward the fully human. Not that divinity would be a detriment, but just that what Jesus did and taught was so extraordinary I want to know that he did it in spite of being human, because that means I can work towards that kind of goodness too.
If Jesus didn’t learn something new from this Caananite woman, then he at least was reminded that his exclusion of her from his mercy arose from the Jewish habit of mind in his day, and not from the real purpose of his life and work. It is in relenting and healing her daughter that he inspires us to treat the outsider, the foreigner, and the outcaste, with similar compassion and mercy. AMEN
Lynn Naeckel +