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The Canaanite Woman — Part 2

April 2, 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.

Today we continue our reflection on the Canaanite woman and Jesus. If you have not yet done so, please take a few minutes to read yesterday’s Part 1.

We might wonder what Jesus is doing when he (a) does not answer or respond to the Canaanite woman and (b) when he mentions that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Neither action, nor inaction seems consistent with other places in the Gospels. So what is up? Perhaps we need to recognize that in this story there are several things happening at once. Reading through these verses we realize that Jesus does indeed interact with the woman and that he is also educating the disciples. Testing and educating are simultaneously taking place.[1] I don’t really like tests. There is still part of me that thinks I will fail tests. I am learning (quite slowly at times) that the vantage point makes a huge difference in test “perception.” When Jesus presents this test, it isn’t a negative thing, nor is it meant to reveal how bad she is. Perhaps this test will reveal not only the woman’s faith, but also reveal her own need. How like Jesus!

Let’s look again at the text. The woman has cried out, trying to get the attention of Jesus, expressing her daughter’s need, which many will recognize is foremost on her heart. When one’s children are in pain, so too is the mother (or the father). Doesn’t this also give us a glimpse of God’s heart for his sons and daughters? What will this woman do in response to Jesus’ stated mission? Will she walk away, rejected? Isn’t that what the disciples want? Ouch!

No, the woman does not walk away. Can you picture what happens next? “She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” Kenneth Bailey explains that the woman “did not move because she believed Jesus did not mean it.”[2] I am beginning to realize the depth of this woman’s faith is rooted in her confidence in who Jesus is. Rather than drawback, she draws near, coming to him and kneeling before Him. I am compelled by this woman and the scene Matthew has recorded for us.

If we had not read the story, if we were not familiar with it we might be hanging, wondering what will Jesus do? What will happen next?

After kneeling she asks Jesus – “Lord, help me.” Perhaps this is on your lips as well. It is your voice you hear? Perhaps you hear the voices of brothers or sisters speaking out to our Lord. She called out asking on behalf of her daughter, she moves to asking for herself. Her need is tied to her daughter’s.

We hang for a moment in this story. What will Jesus say? What will Jesus do? And for a moment we do not understand. What he says seems degrading and harsh, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dogs were not pets, they did not have nice beds to lay on or food dishes to eat out of, dogs in Middle Eastern society were guard dogs, they weren’t necessarily tame, you were wary of dogs. Bailey explains that the Greek word that Jesus uses is kynarion which references a “little dog”[3] so not as threatening, but a “dog” nonetheless. I think we are beginning to realize that the reference to dogs is not so much a reflection of Jesus belief, but a reflection of cultural bias held by the disciples and demonstrated in their request to send her away. Jesus is teaching his disciples that in the Kingdom of God things are different. [4] Does the woman also understand this?

Here the door is left open for the woman to respond. Will she use the opportunity to vent her anger, her frustration at the gender and racial injustice? What will she do? Remarkably the woman answers the insult with wisdom. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

I think we can picture the joy and smile on Jesus’ face. This woman understands her place and she takes her place. She knows that the Kingdom of God is for her as well. “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”

If I was among the disciples at that moment, my paradigm would have shifted – like in an earthquake. She has confronted the prevailing cultural notion toward women and Gentiles and He has done it in such a way that they understand and see demonstrated a broadened viewpoint of who is welcome in the Kingdom. This did not happen overnight, but something is beginning to take shape that paved the way for an inclusive community filled with the Spirit.

Jesus declared to the woman and those within ear “shot” that she had great faith. Bailey notes that her faith was expressed in her “unfailing confidence in the person of Jesus as the agent of God’s salvation for all, both Jew and Gentile. She confesses him as Lord and Master. A final…element …is her willingness to pay any price, even public humiliation, in order to receive the grace mediated by Jesus.”[5]

I am challenged by the faith and actions of the Canaanite woman. May her faith live in us and may our faith grow as we come to know our Lord more and more. Shalom.

[1] Kenneth C. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2008], page 220.

[2] Ibid., page 223.

[3] Ibid., page 224.

[4] Ibid. “The reference to dogs is primarily for the disciples’ education. Jesus is saying to them, ‘I know you think Gentiles are dogs and you want me to treat them as such! But—pay attention—this is where your biases lead. Are you comfortable with this scene?’ “ Page 224. To understand more look up “dogs” in Strong’s or Bible dictionaries.

[5] Ibid., page 225.


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