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The Canaanite Woman

August 15, 2011

This past Sunday, the gospel was from Matthew 15, the story of the Canaanite women who asked Jesus to deliver her daughter, troubled by demons. It’s a story I remember from childhood as a troubling one because first Jesus is silent as if he would shrug her off, and then he is, as it seems, pretty rude to her. In the end, the daughter gets healed, but my sense of the mercy and kindness of Jesus was so battered by that point in the story, that I hardly cared.

The priest would always give some kind of explanation along the lines of Jesus saying what he said to test his apostles or to test the woman, but that kind of account never satisfied me; it wasn’t tender enough for my taste.

Yesterday was different. For the first time, I felt in my heart the sheer joy of this woman, and I recognized a sense of humor that could only have flowed from a complete confidence in Jesus. So I want to tell the story the way I saw it.

Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon, so lots of pagans and non-Jewish folk about, and this woman calls on him to heal her daughter. He’s surrounded by his apostles, and undoubtedly by other believers and unbelievers both, and in the general tumult, he doesn’t answer at first. She’s a Canaanite, not a Jew, and that’s interesting; it means she’s recognizably from outside the Jewish Covenant.

Anyway, her pleading – shouting the gospel says – gets to the apostles. They ask Jesus to heal her because she’s shouting, as in, “Shut her up, Jesus. You can do it, and she’ getting on our nerves.”

That is not actually why Jesus came among us – to rescue us from other people getting on our nerves – and He brushes off the apostles with the suggestion that she doesn’t matter anyway since she’s not Jewish. What he’s really doing is confronting is their own impersonal response to her. Never mind that her daughter has a demon; they want the daughter healed so they can get on with their life without having to cover their ears.


So this is where it gets interesting. Jesus suggests that he shouldn’t heal her because she’s just a Canaanite and he was sent to the lost children of Israel. Oh, covenant! That’s the point. The apostles are brought up short with the smallness of complaining about the noise, and while they are trying to unrattle themselves, the women, now that she has Jesus’ attention, kneels at his feet and says, “Lord, help me.” So she acknowledges his lordship, and she is not just shouting to a powerful stranger who’s happened into town. What else does it mean to belong to the original Covenant other than to be prepared for the coming of Jesus? What else does it mean to enter the New Covenant than to acknowledge him as Lord?

But Jesus doesn’t heal the daughter quite yet, because his apostles aren’t on board quite yet. He says, to the Canaanite women but also in front of them, “It’s not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the house-dogs.” Ooooh! That could hurt. But is it any worse, really, than saying, “Jesus, heal her because she’s too noisy for us?”

Even as Jesus is calling her a dog, though, this woman feels his presence as one feels the presence of a rescuer whose strong hand rests upon our shoulder as he prepares to lead us to safety. She knows that all is truly well, and her heart fills with joy. Yes, she is inside his protection and inside the covenant, even though she doesn’t understand either him or the Covenant, so she feels her way into the image of the house dogs, and then says, “Ah yes, but even the house dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table.”

It is a moment of sheer merriment between herself and Jesus. Right as she says it, she sees the truth, that Jesus has called her into intimacy and trust and that he’s saying something to his apostles which perhaps remains just outside her consciousness since it is not for her, but all is truly well.

The apostles are dumbfounded. Women who are desperate to have their children healed are a constant feature of human life; apostles who want their own comfort in the midst of others’ desperation are a recurrent feature also. But a woman who can ride an insult like a surfer laughing on the top of a wave is not so common. In the years to come, the apostles will understand that Jesus truly came for everyone and they will travel to the ends of the world, or at least as far as they can, Thomas to India, for example. For the moment, they are grappling with the nature of Jewish Covenant in relation to one loud, Canaanite women.

It was to the Jewish people that God revealed his nature – the One who Is – and it was their commitment to monotheism that made a place for the New Covenant to play out. They, and nobody else, made a place for the Incarnation, for God to become Man and credibly know his personal Father from within his humanity. Nevertheless, the revelation of God is for everyone, and the Canaanite woman felt it to be hers even while Jesus was suggesting that she was a little thief asking for her place in it.

When all the pieces were in place, then Jesus healed her daughter, saying, “Woman, great is your faith; let it be done as you have asked.” And the daughter was well from that moment.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mignon permalink
    February 10, 2012 2:44 pm

    “But a woman who can ride an insult like a surfer laughing on the top of a wave is not so common.”

    Love this! What a lovely analysis of an incident that has often troubled me, too.

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