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 messianic title. It is very significant that Matthew has the Gentile woman 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.)
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 15:21-28 – we see a concrete example of Jesus giving expression to a principle that pervades his whole ministry: Laws, rituals and customs are not ends in themselves but means that are there to enable and protect and even heal people and relationships. This principle is perhaps best summed up in an incident near the beginning of Mark’s Gospel: The Sabbath is made for us, we are not made for the Sabbath – see Mark 2:27.
This can seem just a little challenging at first, maybe even scandalous. The understanding and application of the principle requires some maturity, even wisdom. There are complexities, paradoxes and subtleties here that may trap the immature and the unwise. For example, it may be necessary to bring the law to bear against individuals and groups at times, in order to serve the common good. Jesus was not an anarchist or even a revolutionary. This perhaps needs to be emphasized today when individualism has gained an ascendancy and emphasis on “my right” can be destructive of the common good.
St Thomas Aquinas speaks of a virtue not much discussed these days. It is known by its Greek name: epikeia. Epikeia – or epieikeia – was known to the ancient Greek philosophers. It means “the becoming” or “the reasonable”. Thus equity can be brought to bear in an instance not envisaged by the law. And so Aquinas teaches that there are occasions when “it is bad to follow the law, and it is good to set aside the letter of the law, and to follow the dictates of justice and the common good. This is the object of epikeia which we call equity. Therefore, it is evident that epikeia is a virtue”. Aquinas adds that “epikeia does not set aside that which is just in itself, but that which is just as established by law” (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 120, Art. 1).
The Founder of the Marist Fathers – Jean Claude Colin (7 August 1790 – 15 November 1875) – said that, on a visit to Rome, he heard a saying that appealed very much to him: “If I cannot save them with the law, I will save them without it”. A belief in God’s mercy surely demands as much? As does the parable of the Prodigal Son? And the Cross? “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).
I have always found it puzzling that it took Jesus so long to affirm the Canaanite woman and agree to her request. I continue to ponder that. Is it possible that Jesus is momentarily distracted by his own Jewish upbringing, with its particular laws, rituals and customs? This woman is a Gentile. She is also aggressive in seeking a response from him. Is it then possible that it suddenly hit Jesus: The source of this lady’s aggression is a combination of her pain and her belief in him? That he then does what common sense – rather than the law – demands?
A video presentation of the Reflection may be found on YouTube via https://stpatschurchhill.org/