Jesus and the Canaanite Woman: a Note for the Parishes in Central Exeter

Proper 15, Year A. 

For the Gospel: Matthew 15.22-28

You sometimes hear people who think that they are being marvellously orthodox saying things like, “If Jesus was God, he must have known everything.” Actually, when they say things like that they aren’t being orthodox at all. They’re espousing a form of the docetic heresy (the name comes from the Greek verb dokeō, meaning “to appear” or “to seem”). Docetists said that Jesus wasn’t really human at all. He was actually God appearing or seeming or pretending to be human. In other words (and if you will forgive the analogy) he was like a chocolate Easter egg covered in coloured paper. It looks like a coloured egg, but really it’s just chocolate underneath! The New Testament, however, says that “the Word became flesh” (John 1.14)—really became it!—which is to say, Jesus was truly a human being, with all the limitations that go along with that. And among those limitations, of course, is the plain fact that we don’t know everything, and what we do know we have to learn. And, of course, that’s exactly how St Luke describes Our Lord. As he grew to manhood, Luke says, he “advanced in wisdom and stature” (2.52). In other words, he learned things! 

Now one of the reasons why I find today’s gospel interesting is that I believe it gives us a glimpse of Our Lord doing just that: learning something, advancing in wisdom. Some of my old students may remember I used to say to them, “There’s only one time in the gospels when Jesus loses an argument, and it’s to a woman and a foreigner.” This is the story I was talking about.

Jesus, the evangelist tells us, was approached by a woman of Sidon, a Canaanite, in other words, a pagan—the very kind of person whom, according to Moses, the good Israelite should “utterly destroy” (Deut. 20.17). She addresses Jesus with profound respect and asks for healing for her daughter. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,” she says, ”my daughter is tormented by a demon!” At first Jesus simply says nothing—he gives her, as we say, “the silent treatment.” Then, when his disciples fuss at him to send her away, he points out that his primary mission must be to his own people. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Her response is to kneel before him and say, “Lord, help me!” His response—“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”—embarrasses us, and it should. It is an insult, although no doubt it is precisely what Jesus had been told by at least some among his teachers. Israel is God’s child, and Israel’s election must be taken seriously. Non-Israelites are abominable because they do not honour the God of Israel. In their uncleanness they are like dogs, and it would be a poor father who gave the children’s dinner to the dogs! 

Insulted and rejected though she has been, the Canaanite woman neither sulks nor turns away. Rather, she stands her ground, turning Jesus’ family metaphor on its head: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”—a response that shows wit and magnanimity, but above all faith. She maintains her courteous address, continuing to call Jesus “Lord”. She denies neither that Jesus’ primary mission is to Israel nor that the Israelites are God’s “children”, the elect, first in God’s love. She insists, however, on a truth prior even to God’s election of Israel—a truth she seems to know instinctively even though she has surely never read the Scriptures, a truth that was apparently (as St Paul would have put it) “written in her heart” (cf. Rom. 2.15): namely, that “the LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145.9). So then, even mere dogs under the table are surely permitted to pick up the crumbs the children don’t need! In insisting on this, she manifests the essential faith of Israel, the faith of Abraham, the faith of Moses. Like Abraham and Moses, she is willing to argue with God, a willingness that can be based on nothing less than her faith that God is just, good, and merciful. In doing so she shows herself to be at heart a daughter of Abraham. 

Her effect on Our Lord is evident.

“O madam, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

So in this scene we see an occasion when, to use St Luke’s phrase, “Jesus advanced in wisdom.”

I recently came across some important observations about this story in David Brown’s beautiful book, Through the Eyes of the Saints. Commenting on the version found in Mark, where the woman is described as “Syro-Pheonician” rather than “Canaanite”, he writes, 

it is not impossible that it was his [Jesus’] exchange with the Syro-Pheonician woman that led him to give a higher status to Gentiles in the divine economy than seems generally to have been true among his contemporaries. Certainly, all agree that it is an odd exchange, and so possibly may have been preserved precisely because the woman’s quick response led Jesus to think anew: his compatriots’ abusive term for Gentiles as like the despised wild dogs of the day just would not do. None of this can be proved, but, the more seriously we take New Testament scholarship’s contextualising of Jesus’ teaching within the thoughts forms of the time, the more likely such scenarios become. 

Exactly! May God grant us all the faith, wit, grace and tenacity of the Canaanite/Syro-Phoenician woman. Amen.

Christopher Bryan