Over the course of the past few weeks, I was nearly moved to weep at some of the writings of other clergy regarding the Canaanite woman in Matthew's Gospel. A few had the temerity (or lousy christology) to suggest that Jesus' treatment of the woman was the sin of racism present in our Lord and Savior. Others bravely suggested that the woman's role was to teach the Son of God about the need for equal treatment of women and foreigners, as if He needed help understanding the right (holy) way of treating others. And still others are simply disgusted by Jesus' "rudeness." What is more lamentable is that none sought to understand what is occurring in our Gospel lesson this week that would be reflective of a righteous, holy, loving Man who would lay down His life for the sinners and unjust in obedience to the will of the Father. But in the midst of these sad commentaries on our Gospel lesson, I started to wonder how much many of us struggle with this passage. If those that went to seminary and are trained to read the Scriptures are so confused, what of those in our midst who have no such training?
For those of us who think of Jesus as some pre-Gandhi-like figure of peace and love, this piece of Scripture and others can leave us shaking our heads. Why does He call her people a dog? Why does He not answer her right away? And why does He not condemn His disciples for suggesting that He send her away? The context may help us just a bit.
Keep in mind, Matthew has written this Gospel for the church of northern Palestine somewhere around 40 years after Jesus' death, resurrection, and Ascension. The Church community to which he is ministering is persecuted not only by the Romans but by the Jewish community as well. Further, the Church in northern Palestine was experience the pain of realizing that the very ones through whom salvation had come were rejecting their rightful king and messiah. Certainly, the community had to wonder whether God really was in control of His Church and His people. Matthew has a big problem to address.
So, Matthew relates a story. Coming on the heals of the Pharisee's repudiation of Jesus and His disciple's willingness to eat with "unclean hands" and Jesus' explanation of defilement, we are told that Jesus heads north. Does He head north to escape the crowds? Does He need a bit of a break? Or, is it to remind His followers that the point of the Gospel (since the time of Abraham) is to draw the entire world into the Kingdom of God? Certainly the feeding of the 4000 Gentiles (a mirroring of the feeding of 5000 in the Jewish lands) immediately after our reading this weekend supports the latter understanding, but such was not in our reading.
Instead, we are called to focus on the Canaanite woman. By calling her a Canaanite woman, Matthew is reminding his readers that this woman embodies the very race which led God's people into idolatry so many times in the past. And yet this "enemy of God's people" expresses a faith unseen in the leadership of God's very own people. The Canaanite woman nags Jesus to heal her daughter who is possessed. Indeed, the outsider recognizes Him for who He is, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy upon me." The nagging gets so bad that Jesus' disciples beg Him to send her away. And yet Jesus asks aloud whether it is fair to take the children's bread and give it to the puppies. I know most translations choose the word dog, but the Greek word kynaria is the diminutive dog, a puppy. Most translators no doubt choose dog for their translation because the Jews thought of the Gentiles as dogs. It is likely that Jesus played on this cultural understanding. He has just finished teaching the "leaders" of the Jewish people about the true meaning of defilement. Yet he calls God's people children and the Gentiles puppies. Were the statement an outright repudiation or racist statement, one would expect the woman to "let Him have it." Instead, we can nearly see the upturned lips as she grasps the partly sarcastic but partly true statement and the meaning behind it. And, undaunted, the Canaanite woman responds that even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from the tables of their masters. This woman, who has rightly called Jesus the king of the nation that conquered her people so long ago, who has rightly picked up on Jesus' test or wit, does not object to His reminder that His primary mission is to the people of God. This woman even points us to our own Prayer of Humble Access in which we all state that we are not worthy to eat the crumbs that fall from His table.
The woman realizes that her status is secondary to that of the Jewish people. Yet she trusts that God will have enough power to save all; she trusts that even if the Jews do not reject Him or His ministry, the King, the messiah will rule and care for all people as God as called Him to do. And Jesus, as God always does, responds to the faith regardless of the race of the one professing. Her daughter is healed.
Why does Jesus put her off? Perhaps it is a test. Or, perhaps Jesus is merely reflecting the delay that will be experienced between His Resurrection and Ascension (when the Father glorified Him for His obedience) and the Feast of Pentecost, when the disciples were given the Holy Spirit to go forth into the ends of the world baptizing the nations. Perhaps the story is meant to address the problem facing the Church in northern Palestine. If the Pharisees could reject the good news of the messiah while He walked the earth, it was no small wonder that the Jews would reject the good news that they had to share. Better still, perhaps they should not be surprised at their success among the Gentiles when such stories existed to remind them that faith could be found anywhere. Perhaps, the story is even more literal. Jesus does have enough food for Israel, as the feeding of the 5000 represented, but He also has bread crumbs enough for the rest of the world. Any who believe in Him can be saved; the numbers do not matter. We are required only to repent and call Him our Lord and Savior. It is a pity that so many of us forget or refuse that simple truth.