Prejudice, Tradition, And The Canaanite Woman

Prejudice, Tradition, And The Canaanite Woman September 24, 2023

Michael Angelo Immenraet: Jesus And The Canaanite Woman / Wikimedia Commons

Great faith can lead to great deeds. Even those whom many people think are far from God, those whom are seen as ritually unclean, or sinners, can have such great faith that they reveal themselves as being far holier than those whom people otherwise see as holy and pure. We can find this being indicated to us when Jesus encountered a Canaanite woman:

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).

The Canaanite woman was considered unholy by those who considered themselves to be the exclusive “house of Israel.” That her daughter was possessed by a demon would not have surprised them, because they would have likewise thought she would be similarly possessed due to her status as a Canaanite. Even Jesus’ disciples, who were being trained to think beyond the norms of their society, thought the Canaanite woman should be sent away. And, at first, Jesus seemingly agrees, as indicated by the way he said that he had come to help the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The Canaanite woman, however, did not leave; she continued, with great faith, to plead on behalf of her daughter. In doing so, she not only proved she had a great faith, she proved that, despite her status as a Canaanite, she was not far from the kingdom of God. She revealed that she should not be seen as an outcast who had no relationship with God. Instead of seeing this event indicate some sort of prejudice in Jesus, we should see that he was engaging a teaching device; he used the prejudices of the people, their expectations, and had the Canaanite woman prove how false they were. By healing her daughter, and confirming her faith, Jesus revealed that the lost sheep of the people of Israel could and would include everyone. That is, if a Canaanite woman could be praised by Jesus, someone who would have been seen as the worst of the worst, and shown as someone Jesus came to help, who then was outside of his mission to the world?

The lost people of Israel could be said to be all those who are otherwise seen as outside of God’s covenantal relationship established with Moses, all those who should have found a place with God but had not yet done so. Jewish tradition had long suggested this in the way in indicated that God tried to present the Torah to all peoples, all nations, and only Moses and those with him accepted it. Since God had given everyone the chance to follow the Torah, then everyone who declined it are those who could be seen as among the “lost sheep of Israel,” and so among those whom Jesus came to help. Of course, his audience would have understood it differently when he first said those words, for they would have viewed it that he was indicating he was primarily to be with the Jews. Certainly, a good portion of his ministry is indeed with them. Nonetheless, when his mission is examined in its entirety, it is clear he was always inclusive, not exclusive, as he worked with Samaritans, Romans, and here, Canaanites. Jesus used encounters with non-Jews to deconstruct and then reconstruct his audience’s understanding of God and God’s relationship with the world. But, it must be noted, he did this by having non-Jews make the initial move, to have them prove to the Jews that they also had great faith, showing that they were worthy of his care and grace as well.

The Canaanite woman’s faith worked to remove the demonic influence on her daughter, and with it, shows us that Jesus could and work to remove that influence upon all Gentiles. Approval of their faith, and their goodwill, is not approval of all that was found in their tradition, even as approval of the Jewish tradition was not approval of the way that tradition was being lived out by many of his contemporaries. But, again, he wanted to make sure that the Canaanite woman could and would help serve her role by allowing her to make the first move; no one, not even the Canaanites, were outside of God’s calling, and so God’s influence, but everyone must show they accept that calling themselves. No one is inherently evil; everyone has some good in them, good which, when it reveals itself, can become an instrument Jesus uses to help people exorcise whatever evil is found in them so that in the end, only the good will remains. The kingdom of God, the people of God, expands as the good itself is revealed and given the grace it needs to grow. And then, those who have had contact with God, and accepted God’s work in and with them, can become representatives of God’s glory upon the earth.

No one is outside of the possibility of becoming a representative and minister of grace. St Thecla, companion to St. Paul, a woman, demonstrated this with her life. She was a great missionary in the first century. Sadly, so many did all they could to ignore the lesson Jesus showed with his ministry, trying to find a way to silence people, like women, so that only a few can have an active voice in the church. They thought women should not to be given the same voice as men. St. Thecla, who in her life, preached alongside St Paul, and on her own, spread the faith to many others. She was remembered and honored as a saint, but much of what she did, as it stood against the growing attempt to silence women and keep them in a corner which Jesus tried to eliminate, became forgotten. Her life was transformed into a thing of legend, leaving us an incomplete and imperfect picture of her life and holy deeds. Nonetheless, we remember her today, and through her, and her obvious status in the earliest era of the church, we can and should deconstruct many of the impositions put on women, showing how they are not only unnecessary, but they hinder the church in fulfilling its work to include and promote everyone in the world.  Tradition is important, but it can often go astray. Prejudice often finds a way to impose itself upon growing traditions, when we find them, we should exorcise them for the demons they are. Jesus, after all, did so.


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N.B.:  While I read comments to moderate them, I rarely respond to them. If I don’t respond to your comment directly, don’t assume I am unthankful for it. I appreciate it. But I want readers to feel free to ask questions, and hopefully, dialogue with each other. I have shared what I wanted to say, though some responses will get a brief reply by me, or, if I find it interesting and something I can engage fully, as the foundation for another post. I have had many posts inspired or improved upon thanks to my readers.

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