This week’s lectionary reading from Matthew (chapter 15:21-28) is traditionally called the Canaanite Woman. The whole chapter leads up to the story.
At the beginning of the chapter, the pharisees and scribes attack Jesus because his disciples don’t keep the traditions of ritual washing which were so important for being right in the sight of God.
Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.
Jesus replies with a rejoinder worthy of any newsgroup argument:
And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honour your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 5But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honour the father.
He points out their personal hypocrisy, and simultaneously attacks the tradition of the elders of which they make so much:
So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me."
Matthew highlights the problematic nature of our accumulated tradition being used to excuse our avoiding the core implications of our faith. This particular issue of racial and cultic purity was one of the central areas of conflict between early Christians and their Jewish heritage. Probably the inclusion of the story indicates to us that it was an issue within the church.
Jesus is presented going on the attack over the issue. Cleanliness was associated with food. The wrong food would make a person unclean, defiled, in the eyes of God. But Jesus makes the point that
...it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.
In explanation he says to the disciple Peter,
...what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.
Then Jesus is confronted with the implications of his own teaching.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon (which is Gentile territory.) Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’
Calling the woman a Canaanite accentuates her non-Jewishness. Indeed it makes her the antithesis of the Chosen People who, according to their Scriptures, had captured the Promised Land from the Canaanites with the full blessing of God. Her daughter has a demon, which is another measure of uncleanness and separation from all that was godly. This contrast is heightened because the woman calls Jesus “Lord, Son of David.” For all her un-godliness, she recognises exactly who he is. She, of all people, has a claim on his attention, by using this form of address. It is far above saying “Sir,” or “Rabbi.”
But he did not answer her at all.
For those Christians who are heavily invested in Jesus being “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15) and in some kind of literal inerrancy of scripture, what follows is difficult. He does not respond to her. And then he dismisses her with an incredibly nasty comment.
He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
Dogs were what Jews dismissively called non Jews. “In a Jewish setting dogs were not household pets, but semiwild scavengers who ate unclean food.” pp139 The People’s New Testament Commentary By M. Eugene Boring, Fred B. Craddock Published by Westminster John Knox Press, 2004
The church has tried to lessen the offense: he uses the word “puppy” according to some amoelierations, almost playfully teasing the woman. In others he is merely “testing” her faith. None of this is true. His response is simply un-Christ-like. As the pioneer of our faith, Jesus is at this moment showing us the way not to go! He is showing us the cost of the gospel to ourselves- how much following him will challenge the very core of our received beliefs!
Part of him was paralysed by disdain and embarrassment; the disciples were clearly embarrassed, and ‘urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” In other words, "Give her what she wants, get rid of her!" He was also captive to the tradition that the Messiah is for Jews alone:
"...I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Clearly this was an area of disputation in the church to whom Matthew was writing. Some of his readers at this point would say, “That’s right!” the Gospel is not for Gentiles. They are not part of God’s chosen people.” Matthew says Jesus took gospel beyond Judaism, and beyond any human divisions, when the woman
... 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 masters’ 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.
If we want a demonstration of “without sin” we have it here. Once confronted with his shortcomings Jesus immediately changes tack. He sees the implications of what he has been saying, and puts them into practice. Being without sin is not to faultlessly live out some doctrine of holiness, or rules of cleanliness. It is to practically respond to the implications of the gospel as they become clear to us.
This past week churches in our synod have received emails warning of two people pretending to be a retired minister and his wife, who have been visiting churches and abusing people. The wife was here this morning, at our church. I’ve never experienced such a constant- almost no pause for breath- stream of vituperative hatred from another person. And here I was, interrupted from working on this reflection!
If ever there was a daughter of God who need “healing of a demon” it was she. There was no reasoning with her, no possibility of discussion, certainly no point in arguing. Any word we ventured was twisted into another avenue of attack. We stood in silence, trying to let it slide off until the police came and removed her. From a few days in our city, they already know her as a “serial pest.”
According to the gospel, she is not the demon affected daughter of a Caananite woman, beyond the pale at all levels. Whatever ails her, she is a child of God, although one deeply in need of healing. I bluntly told our receptionist, who had felt she was essentially harmless, that I thought the energy which produces such a stream of hatred could be extremely dangerous. “Don’t ever turn your back on a person like that, or get too close. One stab of a knife will kill you.” “Mary Israel,” who calls herself “one of the nine prophetesses of the bible,” is my confrontation with the implications of Jesus’ teaching. I sit up here watching the uni students running for cover in the bitter rain, wondering where she is. I have not dismissed her with hatred. I feel sorry for her, wondering what pain could breed such deep anger, but I could offer her no help or healing.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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