A Canaanite woman confronts Jesus


Scripture: Matthew 15: 21-28 Nigel Bunce


ven Jesus had to overcome biases

The story of the Canaanite woman’s faith shows Jesus as fully human.  However, it’s not a very flattering portrait. A local woman heard that Jesus was a great healer. Matthew called her a Canaanite. From the name of the Holy Land, when the Israelites conquered it more than a thousand years earlier.

A rough analogy would be to say that she was a First Nations woman. But Matthew’s use of the term ‘Canaanite’ is deliberate and rather derogatory. It made her seem a foreigner in her own land. Not “one of us”. Despite that, she called out to Jesus. “Have mercy on me, Son of David.”  What a courageous thing to do! 

The woman’s daughter had a demon

In today’s language, the daughter had a mental illness.  Perhaps it was epilepsy. The woman was very brave to speak publicly of her mentally ill daughter. Demonic possession signified uncleanness. Jesus was a practising Jew, a rabbi even. No wonder the disciples tried to push the woman back into the shadows – unclean, and an outsider, too!

Even today, patients with mental illness, depression, and addiction suffer stigma and ostracism. People don’t talk about these issues in polite society, except about celebrities – movie stars, sports heroes, or rock musicians. It’s fairly recent that we have started to hear about the countless ordinary people who suffer from depression, some of whom even take their own lives.

Jesus must have had the proverbial bad hair day. What he told the woman was rude, racist, and unkind. “I didn’t come to help the likes of you. I came to find the lost sheep of the house of Israel. I’m not going to take the food that belongs to my people and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, I have no time for you and your kind. You and your crazy daughter are nothing better than dogs.  For devout Jews, dogs were unclean.

I find it really odd that Jesus spoke to the Canaanite woman for exactly what he had just criticized the Pharisees. “What comes out of the mouth is from the heart, and that is what defiles,” he had told them earlier. I must be missing something here …

A bold woman; a woman with brass 

But this woman had a quick tongue. “Yes,” she said, “but even dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.” It seems that her response was enough to make Jesus realize how insensitive he had been. “Woman,” he said, “great is your faith. Your daughter will be healed.”

The woman’s humanity shines through in the way that the story is told. Her daughter had an incurable illness. Yet she would do anything to try and find a cure. This Canaanite woman was an outsider. She risked rejection – and initially got rejected – by taking her daughter to see the famous Jewish faith healer.  She challenged the Son of God!

Let’s take the Canaanite woman out of the Scripture story

She is the parents of a child with a diagnosis of an incurable disease. ‘I’m sorry,” say the doctors. “There’s nothing more we can do.” The desperate parents will try any alternative treatment to try to save their child. Other modern parents will try anything to help a mentally ill or drug-addicted son or daughter.

Or she goes from specialist to specialist, from rehab clinic to rehab clinic. She tries to find a cure for her daughter’s addiction. And too often, she gets the brush-off and little sympathy. Because the daughter forgot to take her meds, or continued to hang out with users and pushers. Save mental health care for people who deserve it. “Why take the children’s food and give it to the dogs? ”

What I really like about the Canaanite woman is her attitude. She reminds me of the woman by the well that we met back in the winter. Both of them are feisty characters, who challenge Jesus. What? Challenge the Son of God? You bet your boots! Given its times of writing, the Bible has a surprising cast of women who take leading roles.

Judith, another bold woman

The Book of Judith tells the story of a daring and beautiful widow. She criticized the Jewish leadership. They did not trust God to save them from the Assyrian army. Judith went to  the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes.  There, she pretended to spy on the Israelites. One night, Holofernes got drunk. Judith went into his tent. She took his sword, and cut off his head. Without their leader, the Assyrians did not defeat Israel.

Judith’s prayer [Judith Chapter 16] carries echoes of the Magnificat in praising God’s might and care for the lowly and oppressed.

Mary, mother of Jesus

Which brings me to another New Testament woman that I think we underestimate. That’s Mary, the Mother of Jesus. We usually call her St. Mary the Virgin, and her feast day was just yesterday. Saint Mary – that is Holy Mary – has been associated with a special degree of holiness since the earliest days of Christianity.

But too often, I think, Christians imagine Mary as simply sitting around looking holy, once she had given birth to Jesus. The Church leadership claimed her perpetual virginity (Second Council of Constantinople, 553), despite the clear Gospel evidence that Jesus had brothers and sisters. One of them was James the brother of Jesus.  Who became the leader of the emerging Church is Jerusalem.

The Roman Church claim that these were actually step brothers of Jesus, from an earlier marriage of Joseph.  That’s why Renaissance art portrays Joseph as an old man.

These doctrines have the effect of portraying Mary as sexless.  That ideal of the “perfect woman” did not threaten the emerging male hierarchy of the Church.

Instead, let’s get real. Joseph was a carpenter. Mary had other children to bring up. Like any mother in a society without social welfare programs, she would have had to be tough and pragmatic. We venerate her because she was faithful to God’s call. Not because she sat around all day, looking and virginal in a blue and white dress. That milk and water figure isn’t my ideal of womanhood. Perhaps it is if you are celibate!

To return to Jesus and the Canaanite woman

“Canaanite” was practically a racial slur. Today’s Gospel is a kind of parable for our own times.   For what has happened in Canadian society during our lifetimes. Racist or sexist or homophobic remarks and jokes were considered quite normal not so long ago. They are simply outrageous in Canada today.

For me, the point about the exchange between the Canaanite woman and Jesus is that every one of us has preconceived notions and biases. Including Jesus, it seems. We can’t help having biases. We grew up with them. But we can help whether we try to do something about them. So the take-home message from today’s Scripture is that people can learn to change, individually and societally. Even Jesus had to, according to Matthew. And it was a Canaanite woman who taught him.