Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then 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 he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “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.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28 – NRSV)
Matthew is dependent on Mark 7:24–30 for this story. Though Matthew has made some interesting changes. He has changed Mark’s “the woman was a Gentile (literally Hellenis – a Greek), of Syrophoenician origin” to “a Canaanite (Chananaios) woman”; he has the woman cry out and address Jesus with the Messianic title: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon” whereas Mark does not have this address; Jesus’ initial silence and the request of the disciples are omitted by Mark; after the woman’s retort, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”, Matthew has Jesus heal the woman’s daughter because of her “great faith” while Mark says it is simply because of what she said.
For a map of Palestine in early 1st century showing where Tyre and Sidon are click here.
The scenario unfolds as a conversation. The woman addresses Jesus three times and Jesus responds twice. The disciples also address Jesus and he replies to them. This conversation grounds the event and makes it accessible to us. It is very immediate and concrete. We are drawn into the conversation.
a Canaanite woman: By saying the woman is “a Canaanite” Matthew calls to mind the ancient inhabitants of this land. This is a dramatic encounter. Jesus is here dealing with one of the traditional enemies of Israel. He not only performs the miracle for her, he acclaims her for her “great faith”. We should not underestimate the symbolic power of this action, radically expanding the Messianic vision beyond the boundaries of Israel – even to Israel’s enemies. One scholar also notes: “It is significant that this narrative immediately follows the discussion of “clean” and “unclean” in both Matthew and (Mark 7:24–30), because the woman is Canaanite and therefore ‘unclean’ from the Jewish perspective. The story solemnly declares that though she is a Gentile, her faith is sufficient to confirm her as ‘clean’ and therefore acceptable in God’s sight.” (B M Newman & P C Stine, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, United Bible Societies, 1992, 492.) “Canaanite is found numerous times in the Old Testament, though it is used only here in the New Testament. The problem is that there was no longer a political country called ‘Canaan’ in New Testament times. Some scholars are of the opinion that this was the Semitic manner of referring to the people of Phoenicia at the time that Matthew’s Gospel was written.” (B M Newman & P C Stine, op cit, 492-493.)
Son of David: This is a Jewish messianic title. It is very significant that Matthew has this Gentile address Jesus with that title. This seems to confirm that Jesus himself is “radically expanding the Messianic vision beyond the boundaries of Israel” and the people beyond those boundaries are responding in “faith”. They in fact see what the religious authorities of Israel do not – or refuse to – believe.
I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel: This is unique to Matthew. It repeats Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 10:5-6 when he sends the disciples out: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Scholars are uncertain as to whether this statement is addressed to the woman or to the disciples.
she came and knelt: The Greek verb proskyneō – here translated as “knelt” – “is the verb most frequently used in the New Testament of worship in general, and it is found first in this Gospel in 2:2. The root meaning is ‘approach in dog-like fashion’, and it describes the manner in which a subject might approach a king or some other holy person or object. Consequently the meaning may be either ‘fall down and worship’ or ‘worship’. The present context suggests that the woman is either kneeling or, more likely, prostrating herself on the ground, pleading with Jesus to heal her child.” (B M Newman & P C Stine, op cit, 496.) It is entirely possible that all this happened while Jesus and the disciples were moving along. If so, it is not hard to imagine it being more than a little chaotic!
It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs: This is a statement of priority rather than a statement about Gentiles – the children of the household are fed before the pets. One scholar writes: “Commentators generally note the sayings of certain Jewish teachers who referred to Gentiles as dogs, but this does not support the argument that all Jews felt this way toward them. And there is no evidence from other New Testament sources that Jesus himself ever spoke of Gentiles in this manner. In fact, it is most probable that the saying is not intended to make a derogatory remark about Gentiles, but rather to differentiate order of priority: children (symbolizing the Jews) are fed before the household pets (dogs symbolizing the Gentiles). In a Palestinian household, which had children and household dogs, the children would be fed first, after which the dogs would be given the scraps from the table. The woman must have understood Jesus’ remark in this way, as her response in verse 27 intimates.” (B M Newman & P C Stine, op cit, 497.)
Miroslav Volf is a Croatian man, currently a Yale academic, who was persecuted and brutalized for his Christian faith under Tito in the old Jugoslavia. In his fine book, Exclusion & Embrace, he wrestles with the issue of human identity and otherness. In particular he asks the question: How can we embrace the “other” who has hurt us or threatens us?
This question has immense ramifications for peace in the world at large as well as in our various personal spheres.
We human beings so often derive our identity – at least in part – from those we choose to oppose – “others”. The opposition might manifest itself in fairly ordinary ways such as contra-suggestibility, cynicism, sarcasm, moodiness and an assortment of other negative and adversarial reactions. It may also manifest itself in much more malign ways, for example in the maintenance of bitter memories and resentments, the felt need to seek revenge and vendettas through to actively pursuing hatred and violence against the “other”.
In other words, enmity can be a cheap way to identity. “I am” when “he/she is not”. And if I can inflict humiliation and pain on the “other” as I push them towards non-existence, so I become more I. We are here somewhere near the ground, the very basis of the human capacity for evil.
Miroslav Volf offers a practical insight, reminding us of what it means to be God’s people:
“Christians can never be first of all Asians or Americans, Croatians, Russians, or Tutsis, and then Christians. At the very core of Christian identity lies an all-encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures. A response to a call from that God entails rearrangement of a whole network of allegiances. As the call of Jesus’ first disciples illustrates, ‘the nets’ (economy) and ‘the father’ (family) must be left behind (Mark 1: 16-20). Departure is part and parcel of Christian identity. Since Abraham is our ancestor, our faith is ‘at odds with place’, as Richard Sennett puts it in The Conscience of the Eye (Sennett 1993, 6).” (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Abingdon Press, 1996, 40. Kindle Edition, 2010.)
In other words, our true identity is found in God and only in God. That identity transcends all cultures, societies, political allegiances and ideologies. Thus our life in Christ is ultimately trans-cultural, trans-ethnic, trans-political, trans-societal and trans-family. “Transcends” does not mean “dismisses” or “rejects”. Quite the contrary. The key is simply that we do not find our identity in any of those realms. We can enter those realms as free agents – transformed and transforming – because we are finding our identity beyond those realms in Christ.
This, in fact, is the only way we can live out our prophetic identity. The prophet cannot be beholden to the culture or religion or any other human structure otherwise she/he will be too easily turned from the prophetic task.