Whenever I study a text to prepare to preach, I remember that it is not my text, but a shared text.
I share the text with my congregation, and with Christians around the world. It is also a text we share with the original Christian community it was written for two thousand years ago, and with all of the people who have lived since then who have found it to be a living text; it is shared through time and across the globe. There are limitless commentaries and scholarly articles which tell what it has meant to the church in different eras. As I study, I listen for the promptings of the Holy Spirit to point me to what is fresh in the text—to hear what speaks to us in this moment. I also look diligently for good news—which is what the word ‘Gospel’ means, and what it should always be.
With all of that in mind, the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a particularly difficult narrative. Jesus argues with the woman, and says he will not help her because she is not an Israelite. He calls her a dog. Finally, he changes his mind and heals the woman’s daughter. As we hear it, as a stand-alone text, this is troubling. This is not the Jesus I know. The general consensus of the Church is that this is the moment when Jesus is persuaded to expand his ministry beyond the people of Israel. It is the moment when Jesus himself changes. Except—I don’t buy it. I have evidence to support a very different understanding of this passage.
Part of the problem is that the texts we hear in Church are isolated from their context.
Let’s look around the Gospel of Matthew, at some other texts, so we can see what is really going on here. Take a look at the healing of the Centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:5-13). A Centurion approached Jesus in Capernaum and said “Lord, my servant is lying at home, paralyzed and in terrible distress.” And Jesus said, “I will come and cure him.” No argument, no debate. “I will come and cure him.” A Centurion was an officer in the Roman Legion—the occupying army that kept the people of Israel under the control of Caesar. He was highly paid from the punitive taxes squeezed from the people. He was the enemy. And Jesus immediately agreed to heal his servant. The Centurion said he was a man under authority, who had soldiers under him—if he directed that something be done, he knew his orders would be carried out. He asked Jesus to speak the word, and he knew it would be done. Jesus was amazed, and said that no one in Israel had shown such faith. Then he said “Let it be done for you.” And the servant was healed. Nowhere did he say he wouldn’t heal a non-Israelite.
A few chapters later, Jesus arrived in the country of the Gadarenes (Matt. 8:28-34). Two men who were possessed by demons and were so dangerous they could only live in the cemetery shouted at Jesus: “What have you to do with us, Son of God?” They didn’t even ask to be healed. Then it becomes clear it was the demons speaking, and they asked to be sent into the herd of swine. The fact that the Gadarenes had herds of swine makes it very clear that they were not Israelites—who neither eat pork nor keep swine. And yet, Jesus healed the men of their demon possession.
The mention of the swine brings up something Jesus said earlier in Matthew’s Gospel: “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine.” (Matt. 7:6).
Now we have a better frame of reference to understand what was happening in the scene with Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Jesus was on the northern borderlands of Israel, near the region of Tyre and Sidon—the land of Syria. We know how dangerous that can be for Jewish people. A Canaanite woman came out and started shouting. Why was she shouting? Perhaps her voice had to carry a long distance, perhaps she was prevented from getting close enough to Jesus to speak with him in a normal voice. Why? What was preventing her? It seems that it was his disciples. They were a barrier between her and Jesus. She is trying to reach him because her daughter needs to be healed of a demon, but strangely Jesus did not even answer her at first. She certainly persists—and makes enough noise that the disciples complain to Jesus saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
When Jesus finally spoke to her, he said: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.” He said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (“Do not give what is holy to the dogs”). The Canaanite woman doesn’t even argue for her dignity, she merely accepts his words and pleads for the crumbs that a dog would naturally get.
What we might easily miss is that in calling the woman a ‘Canaanite,’ Matthew used a term that was archaic two thousand years ago. Canaan was the name of the land that became the land of Israel when the people Moses led arrived in Canaan and displaced the people who lived there. In calling her a Canaanite, the Gospel may be intending to point to the deeply contested history between her people, and the people of Israel. But in spite of that she came in hope to Jesus, calling him the Son of David because she somehow recognized him as the Messiah, to ask him to heal her daughter.
Imagine if you went to a doctor for yourself, or for your child, only to be told that you could not be helped because you were not a regular patient. Or even worse, that you were from the wrong ethnic group, or lived in the wrong town. Some people don’t even have to imagine that.
So what is going on here? Is she more of an enemy than a Centurion? More foreign than the swine-herding Gadarenes?
Clearly not. What we have here is an object lesson for the disciples. When Jesus did not respond immediately to the Canaanite woman’s plea to heal her daughter, he was probably watching his disciples trying to prevent the woman from reaching him. They actually urged him to send her away. After watching him heal all comers, the disciples still saw only limits and boundaries and differences between the people who tried to come to Jesus.
One of the tricky things about trying to dig into the text is that it was written in Ancient Greek, a language that did not depend on word order the way English does. It also had no punctuation—no exclamation points, no question marks. If Jesus was schooling the disciples in the hope they would finally learn to stop trying to send people away, maybe what Jesus said to the Canaanite woman were ironic statements in the form of questions: “Wasn’t I sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel?” Her answer was that he was sent for something bigger than that. He said: “Is it fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?” And her answer was that she knew she was a nobody, but her cause was just. Whether she had a religious faith in Jesus as the Messiah is not quite clear, but she had unshakable faith in the righteousness of her cause, and she was determined that he would listen to her. Finally, Jesus rewarded her persistent faith by healing her daughter—instantly! There was no shortage of healing and mercy from Jesus, and there never will be. The difference between the healing of the Centurion’s servant and the Canaanite woman’s daughter is that the Centurion was somebody, and the Canaanite woman was nobody. But she mattered to Jesus.
This has been a sad and tumultuous week.
You may have come to church with a faint hope that the Gospel would say something–would speak a word of healing and peace—to our troubled hearts. I think we have found it here. This week we lost a somebody; Robin Williams couldn’t carry his burdens any longer. Jesus says: “I’ve got you. Come here.” We also lost someone who was nobody, except to his community. Jesus says to Mike Brown: “I’ve got you. Come here.”
Where are we in all of this? We are the disciples. Like them, we still have to learn—again and again until we finally get it—that Jesus offers love and mercy without regard to our ideas about boundaries and divisions. We need to heal our painful history, and we need to begin by listening to the righteousness of the cause of the people who have been treated as nobodies by our culture. Listen to the voices from Ferguson, really listen, and pray for healing. Jesus didn’t change his mind about the Canaanite woman. He was silent so we could hear her speak for herself. Jesus came for the somebodies, but mostly he came for the nobodies. And that, praise God, is the good news.