The Canaanite Woman And Jesus

The Canaanite Woman And Jesus September 27, 2020

Pieter Lastman: Jesus and the Canaanite Woman /Wikimedia Commons

Often, reading the Gospels can surprise us. Jesus acts in ways which seem out of character, at least, different from how we expect him to act. Jesus came to save the whole world. Why, then, does it often seem like he believed his purpose was only with the people of Israel? Indeed, is that not what he tells a Canaanite woman who came to him, asking for his help?

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying 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.”  And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread 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, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly (Matt. 15:21-28 RSV).

How can the woman be a Canaanite? Weren’t the Canaanites wiped out by the people of Israel? Matthew calls her a Canaanite because of where she was born, not because she was a descendent of the ancient Canaanites. Mark, in his Gospel, says, “Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth” (Mk. 7:26a RSV). That is, she was a Greek (or Gentile) inhabitant of Roman-occupied Phoenicia. Thus, she was not descended from the ancient Canaanites, but rather, was in a group of people who could be seen as having taken their place.

Despite being a Gentile, it is clear she had learned from and believed in much from the Jewish tradition, that is, received scraps from the people of Israel, and had become a God-fearer. She had faith in the God of Israel, and tt was that faith which led her to Jesus, even as it was that faith which allowed her to get what she wanted from him. She did not deny that Jesus’ mission was with the people of Israel, but rather, she believed that as she was already a recipient of graces coming through the people of Israel, as a God-fearer, Jesus could help her as well. It was that faith which helped her and her daughter, for through that faith, her daughter was healed:

Seest thou how this woman too contributed not a little to the healing of her daughter? For to this purpose neither did Christ say, “Let your little daughter be made whole,” but, “Great is thy faith, be it unto thee even as thou wilt;” to teach you that the words were not used at random, nor were they flattering words, but great was the power of her faith. [1]

Many commentators believe that Jesus said what he did, not because he was intent on denying her what she wanted, but rather, to give her the opportunity to reveal her faith:With this intent did Christ put her off, for He knew she would say this; for this did He deny the grant, that He might exhibit her high self-command.” [2]  Only when she had proven herself, proven her faith, indeed, proven she had accepted what God was doing in and with Israel through Jesus, was she able to receive what she sought.

What are we to make of what Jesus said, that is, that he was sent only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel?  It seems as if he believed that he had nothing to do with the Gentiles. But the point is that he had come for the lost sheep of Israel first, to fulfill the expectations of the Law and Prophets, so he could reveal himself as the messiah. He came to fulfill the messianic expectations and reveal to the house of Israel that the kingdom of God was at hand. Others could, and would, be included in that revelation (as people can find themselves joined with the destiny of Israel), but it was only after his death and resurrection would Christ reveal his universal mission and have his disciples go out unto the whole world to have the whole world brought together as one under him. “For he was unwilling to give an occasion to his false accusers, and he was reserving the perfected salvation of the Gentiles for the time of his Passion and Resurrection.”[3]

Therefore, did Jesus not deny the Canaanite woman the fulfillment of her wishes, but rather, he wanted her to reveal her faith. He wanted to show that it is through such faith she would receive what she asked from him. It was a faith which accepted the relationship between God and Israel, a faith which many God-fearers possessed. Such God-fearers were already receiving the “scraps” at the table, that is, graces based upon their relationship with Israel and what God had worked in and through Israel. While her words can be used to indicate her humility, they can also be seen as a metaphor of what she believed was already being done with God-fearers and the house of Israel. Why, then, should she be denied those scraps when she already accepts the premise that Jesus came to the house of Israel? Jesus, far from undermining her, lifted her up and showed through her that his mission was not an exclusive mission, but rather, it was one which could and would help others through Israel. Today, we Christians need to realize that God continues to act in this way with the world. That is, God works in and through the church. Those outside the church can and do receive graces due to their faith in God. Indeed, many of them are receiving such graces while we, in the church, turn our backs on them, as we try to have God act according to our inordinate desires instead of seeing what God wants out of us and doing it.


[1] St. John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Matthew” in NPNF1(10): 323.

[2] St. John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Matthew,” 322.

[3] St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew. Trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington. DC: CUA Press, 2008), 182.

 

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