A Sermon for August 16, 2020
The story of the Canaanite Woman is a fascinating one with lots of intricacies and questions. Its location, the region of Tyre and Sidon was on the Mediterranean Sea, just north of Israel, in what is now the country of Lebanon. Beirut, the city that has been in the news recently because of the tragic explosion that killed hundreds and displaced thousands, is in this same region. During the time of Jesus, the region would have been inhabited primarily by Canaanites, but it was a busy seaport area so lots of different ethnicities would have co-existed there, including Jews.
There is speculation about why Jesus led his disciples to the region. Some scholars have suggested that the stories of his healing powers were less known there, and Jesus believed he would get a little break. If so, the Canaanite woman that approached him, acknowledging him as Lord, and Son of David, and then asking his help to cure her daughter of a demon, may have surprised Jesus and the disciples. She knew exactly who he was and what he could do for her.
But more perplexing than why Jesus chose to go into Tyre and Sidon is why he reacted to the Canaanite woman like he does. His words indicate that he sees her as less than the children of Israel. He sounds insulting and even cruel to a woman who is begging for the life of her daughter. A strange reversal from the speech he just gave in Matthew’s Gospel where he chastises those in Israel who are so focused on their dietary restrictions that they forget what’s really important are the intentions of the heart. This is where we get his famous line, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
When we hear the words coming out of the mouth of Jesus, they sound more like evil intention than the generosity we see elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel.
Let me remind you of how their encounter goes. When Jesus and the disciples arrived in Tyre and Sidon, 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.” But [Jesus] did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
So Jesus answered her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Did Jesus call the Canaanite woman a dog? Is he who has fed 5000 and more with just a few baskets of bread and fish, telling her that there’s not enough healing power to be wasted on the likes of her kind? Surely a cruel response to one who is begging for him to heal a beloved and suffering daughter! How do we make sense of this?
Last fall, our Wednesday Bible Study Group tackled Matthew’s Gospel. When we got to this passage about the Canaanite woman, there was lots of debate about how we should interpret this encounter. What should we make of the indifference Jesus initially shows to the woman and then his reversal—the faith that he recognizes in her and the healing he gives to her daughter?
One person expressed that if Jesus was fully human, as well as divine, then we shouldn’t be surprised that he had some of the cultural prejudices of the community that raised him. She liked that Jesus seemed to learn something from the Canaanite woman—that his heart could be moved and that he could recognize his own prejudice and then change. And that his change of heart should be a lesson for all of us to re-examine our own biases.
Others, like the biblical scholar, Joy J. Moore, claims that the way Jesus initially responds to the woman is sexist and racist, that he insulted her as a woman and a Canaanite. And that as a black woman, it’s hard for her to hear Jesus, in her words, screwing up like that. (Sermon Brainwave for 8.16.20)
Instead she interprets the exchange in this way. Jesus is not talking down to the woman but voicing the prejudices of the onlookers and calling to attention what is in their hearts, not his. He wants them to hear the harshness of the response they encourage when they ask him to send the woman away.
And his speech gives an opportunity for the woman to challenge the small-minded prejudice of the disciples and others in the crowd.
Moore claims that the Canaanite woman knows that God’s faithfulness to Israel is a blessing to everyone else, too. She knows what God said to Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of Israel. “I will bless you, and you will be a blessing. . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3). The Canaanite woman expects Jesus to keep God’s promise to Israel to be a blessing to all the people on the earth, not just the Israelites.
Perhaps, Jesus, like God, knows the heart of the Canaanite woman and that her plea for healing for her daughter is genuine, and he has every intention of doing as she asks out of her great faith. When Jesus’ cruel words drive her to stand up for herself and to persist that she and her daughter are worthy of blessing, she not only gets the blessing she desires, but the crowd around her learns a lesson about God’s abundance.
It is interesting and likely not a coincidence that other Canaanite and foreign women show up in Matthew’s Gospel. They are there from the very beginning in the genealogy of Jesus. Tamar and Rahab, Canaanites, and Ruth the Moabite, who was the great-grandmother of King David, are the only women mentioned by name in the genealogy. Foreigners, sometimes despised by the Israelites, but part of the bloodline of Jesus, the Messiah. Like the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s Gospel, they are part of God’s story. Their place is within, not outside.
In a way, we can read this as yet another story about abundance. Just like the Feeding of the 5000 and the parables of seeds and yeast. The Canaanite woman has faith that there is enough healing power to go around. She has faith that God’s blessing extends to all the people on the earth. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus breaks down the boundaries of those things that divide us. Like the great communion hymn, “One Bread, One Body” says,
Gentile or Jew
Servant or free
Woman or man
God doesn’t just offer crumbs to those we want to label as outsiders. No, God sets a place for them at the Table. We are called to do likewise. Welcome those we have labeled as outsiders. Break the boundaries that divide us. Make space at the Table.