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The Canaanite Woman — Part 1

April 1, 2009

Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from 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 master’s 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.

Here we have another interaction between Jesus and women. I do not know about you, but this is a difficult passage to read. Jesus seems so … well… “un-Jesus like.” Let’s look at a few things as we begin to reflect on this passage.

Geography: Jesus is on the move and is now in the region (district) of Tyre and Sidon. He has left the region of Israel. Is it the first time Jesus has done so? From the context of this passage perhaps not, at the very least this woman has heard of Jesus. That we can discern from the text.

Who is with him? We specifically know that the disciples are with him. That is revealed to us within these verses. Are there other “disciples” – followers of Jesus—with him? That we do not know from the text. What is crucial in this story is that the disciples are with Jesus. This story is not only about the Canaanite woman, it is also about the disciples. The backdrop of this story is not one of isolation but within community.

The Story: The woman is identified as a Canaanite woman. Canaan was not a country, yet the reference identifies her as outside of the Jewish faith – an outsider. Did you make any mental references to the Old Testament to Abraham, to Joseph, to the Israelites? As an outsider – think of all the implications. This makes her address to Jesus startling. “Have mercy on me” is an address or cry used by a beggar.[1] Is she a beggar or does her address reveal her attitude? That is not quite so clear. Kenneth Bailey reminds us what we are reading reveals that this woman is reaching across two barriers – one is gender and the other racial. She is a woman addressing a man and she is identified as a Canaanite, not a Jew.[2] Although our culture is different today, if we pause for a moment perhaps you realize that such barriers exist among us… where?

“Lord, son of David” – We read this “address” toward Jesus in other places in the Gospels. But this is being said by a non-Jewish woman. She reveals her knowledge of who Jesus is and also a measure of her faith. She reveals her need to Jesus – what she carries front and center; she wants her daughter to be healed. She recognizes the need. She isn’t quietly coming to Jesus, she is coming loudly. She wants to be heard.

How does Jesus respond? He doesn’t answer her…at all! Doesn’t that surprise you just a little bit? Doesn’t that shock you? I do not know about you, but when I ask a question of someone, I expect them to answer. I want them to answer me. I know there have been times when not being answered affected me personally, as if I was not valued enough to be responded to. Jesus does not answer this woman. How will she respond? Is Jesus really ignoring her or is there something underneath the surface for us to recognize?

The disciples enter into the conversation at this point or maybe it’s better said they inject themselves into the conversation. Have they been encouraged by Jesus’ silence? “And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” We’ve heard this before, is it just the words or the attitude revealed in the words? Remember when the little children were brought to Jesus? The disciples wanted them sent away. When the crowd was hungry, didn’t the disciples want them sent away to get food? This woman is drawing all kinds of attention to them. She is shouting after them. Sounds like she is not letting this go, the disciples are annoyed. Perhaps we can relate to what the disciples are experiencing. Perhaps there is no end to the mental and emotional drain from people’s needs. Perhaps they are wondering why in the world they have traveled here, into Tyre and Sidon. This isn’t Israel! What’s up?

The disciples have not asked Jesus why he did not answer her. His silence was culturally acceptable. Bailey writes, “By ignoring the woman’s desperate cries he appears to endorse views toward women with which the disciples were comfortable.”[3] We’re beginning to realize that the woman and her daughter are not the only ones to be affected by Jesus.

In response to the disciples demand, Jesus states, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” No one challenges this, no one comes to the defense of this Canaanite woman, and no one mentions her need or her daughter. Is Jesus challenging the disciples thinking regarding gender (women) and ethnicity (Jew-Gentile)?

Prejudice is “snarky.” Sarah Sumner reveals how subtle this can be in her book, Men and Women in the Church. In the chapter on “Women and Personhood” she discusses prejudice, its affect and implications. Prejudice means “an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.”[4] A secondary definition adds to our understanding, “any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.”[5] I have been guilty of prejudice. Sumner points out that prejudice is a secondary sin, “it derives from a basic sense of pride.”[6] I have been guilty of pride.

Sumner has come to realize through her teaching (she is a professor at Azuza Pacific University in the Haggard School of Theology), consulting, and speaking that prejudice is present. “When someone believes God sees one category of people as superior or inferior to another, then prejudice becomes blind not only to itself but also to the sinfulness of itself. It is always sinful to show partiality.”[7] If there is a reoccurring thread throughout all of scripture it is that God does not show partiality and we are not to show partiality. Yes that’s pretty strong stuff. Check it out… Romans 2:11, Deuteronomy 1:17; 16:19, Malachi 2:9, Acts 10:34, 1 Timothy 5:21, James 3:17.

Sumner reveals that on several occasions women have affirmed in her presence that they are inferior to men. They believe it. Surprisingly it is not only among “older” women, it is among young women in their twenties.[8] But there is more.

“Who else thinks women are inferior? Not long ago I was invited to consult a group of approximately eighty pastors at a denominational meeting. Talking to them unguardedly in a backstage kind of way, I said, “You know how sometimes you feel superior to women because…well…you can just tell that you are?” And they laughed. It struck them as funny…

When one man read this story, he nonchalantly told me that he would’ve laughed too. “What’s the big deal?” he said. “Obviously I am not your target audience because I do not believe that men are superior to women.”

So then I said to him, “Okay, consider this. Would the pastors have laughed had I said to them, ‘You know how sometimes you feel superior to African Americans because…’ (insert into the quote above). “Those pastors would have known that my statement was racist. They would have been offended on the spot. They know it’s wrong to think of themselves as superior to people who have black skin. But they are not yet sensitized to their prejudice against women.”

Suddenly the man’s face dropped. Staring at me, pained, with a very changed countenance, he softly muttered, “Oh…I see what you’re saying…”[9]

Lest we think Sumner’s intent is to bash men, she confessed that she herself is not so different from those pastors.[10] I am beginning to recognize how subtly partiality and prejudice creep into our thoughts, attitudes and into language. God is revealing my own to me.

Interestingly enough right before our current story about the Canaanite woman, Matthew recorded Jesus’ teaching on what truly defiles. The reference is Matthew 15:10-20. They are related in more ways than one.

We’ll continue tomorrow…


[1] Kenneth C. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2008], page 220. “The woman begins with the traditional cry of a beggar.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., page 221

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sarah Sumner, Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003], page 76.

[7] Ibid., page 77.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., page 77-78.

[10] Ibid., page 78.

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