Proper 15 17th August 2008
A Reflection on Matthew 15: 21-28
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just 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.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
This encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman seems to me to be a puzzling incident. Why didn’t Jesus respond to this woman straight away? Was it because she was a Canaanite, or was it because she was a woman?
It is only Matthew that uses the term ‘Canaanite’, Mark refers to a Syro-Phoenician woman. I find it hard to believe that it was her race that was an issue. After all Jesus had worked among Gentiles before, but he is quite clear when he says ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But Jesus has ignored her and the Apostles reacted to her with a sense of irritation, she was a nuisance and they wanted her to go away. Jesus then responds to her plea by making it quite clear that she is the lowest of the low, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ The Canaanites are the quintessential enemy of Israel, any contact with them, particularly that of inter-marriage, would lead Israel into idolatry and immorality. There is a definite conflict here, if he wants nothing to do with Gentiles why on earth is he in Tyre? So perhaps the difficulty for Jesus is because she is a woman. She is a Canaanite woman in the midst of a group of Jewish men, and she is responded to with contempt, she (and by default, her race) are likened to ‘dogs’. But she is quick witted and gives him a confident response, she was persistent and did not let obstacles or the insults of others stop her, she would not let go until her voice was heard.
It is a familiar story even for women around the world today. Despite the great strides made by feminism the woman’s voice still strains to be heard. Perhaps recently the most poignant example was the official photograph of the Lambeth conference, just a few women amongst so many men. This photograph highlighted how women’s voices are outnumbered within the hierarchy of the church. But we must not be downhearted, because through the steely determination of a few women our voices are being heard. At Lambeth the spouses conference was of course dominated by women, add to this the prominence of IAWN in the market-place and no-one could fail to notice the presence of women. Over the last couple of years I have been privileged to be a part of the Anglican delegation to UNCSW. The Anglican voice here started off small, but through the determination of one or two women is now a strong influence, I believe we are now the largest NGO group that attends. The women I have met are all strong and determined, but it is notable that as a group we are stronger, gaining strength from each other. The Anglican women and groups of women like them definitely have a positive impact at UNCSW and as a result make life better for women throughout the world.
What is clear about this story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is that her faith is strong and because of the strength of her faith she is determined. Some say that in refusing to answer her plea straightaway Jesus was testing her, showing that it was the strength of her faith that was important not her race (or presumably her sex). The Gospel is for everyone, even the lowest of the low provided their faith is strong enough. Whatever the truth, whatever point Jesus or the writer of the Gospel was trying to make, what is clear is that we must be committed to Christ with our whole heart. The Canaanite woman shows us the way, we have to be persistent, stubborn and tenacious nothing must turn us from our path and we must follow it joyfully. It must have seemed to the Canaanite woman that the odds were stacked against her, but she made a choice to fight and she was revolutionary and as a result she convinced Jesus that she was worthy of his time. Whatever path we may choose, whatever decisions we make we must be committed. It seems that too often obstacles are set in our path, this may be because we are women, or because of culture or tradition. If we are clear and committed to our path then we can stand firm against those who mock or insult us. The Canaanite women, a strong, powerful, articulate woman, is an example for us all today.
Dr Sarah A. Rogers
Ordinand of the Church in Wales.