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. Matthew has made some interesting changes though.
1. Matthew has changed Mark’s “the woman was a Gentile (literally Hellenis – a Greek), of Syrophoenician origin” to “a Canaanite woman”.
2. Matthew has the woman cry out and address Jesus with a Messianic title: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon”. Mark does not have this address.
3. 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 click here. Tyre and Sidon are in modern day Lebanon. Tyre is a town about 40kms north of Galilee and Sidon is another 40kms further north. It would have been several days walk for Jesus to get there and back, suggesting it is a significant journey in Jesus’ mission.
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 affirms her for her “great faith”. While this is probably addressing an issue in the Matthean community, we should not underestimate the symbolic power of this action, for it radically expands the Messianic vision.
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.
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 human relationships and 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. The opposition might manifest itself in fairly ordinary ways such as contra-suggestibility, cynicism, sarcasm, cutting remarks, 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 – and destructive – way to identity. “I am” when “he/she is not”. And if I can inflict humiliation and pain on the other as I push him/her 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, ideologies and yes, even, religion. “Transcends” does not mean “dismisses” or “rejects”. Quite the contrary. The key is simply that we do not find our identity, and therefore our ultimate sense of security, in any of those realms. The people in those realms do not own us. We can enter those realms as free agents – transformed and transforming because of that freedom.
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 fabrication otherwise she/he will be too vulnerable to threats and too easily turned from the prophetic task.