Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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The Canaanite Woman’s Faith
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 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.’ 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 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.
Last week, we heard the first part of Matthew 15. In that part of chapter 15, Jesus was arguing with people who had a passion equal to his own about what was important in their faith. They were arguing about how to keep their shared religious laws, and how to weigh the value of traditions developed to keep those laws in light of human need. Jesus, like other Jewish teachers of his era, believed that human need should often guide how they followed their religious laws. This is why he thought it was ok to feed hungry people and healing sick people on the Sabbath. That’s what we read together.
Then, there was this additional bit of teaching where Jesus talked about eating. There were some very important religious laws about what was ok to eat and what was not. These were some of the religious practice that most clearly separated their community from other cultural communities that they lived alongside. Ultimately, and surprisingly for some people, Jesus said it was “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” We should remember that this isn’t Jesus arguing against dietary laws, but, instead, is likely pointing out that you can eat or not eat everything you are supposed to and still say and do things contrary to God’s covenant. He said, “For out of the heart comes evil intentions.” He said evil intentions and actions defile. Eating without ritually washing one’s hands does not.
That is all context that should be in our minds. Jesus said human need is a vital part of how someone figures out how to follow their religious traditions. And, we saw Jesus regularly healing the sick when they sought him out. And, beating this story ritually pure was not more important to him than following the heart of their religious law, which was loving neighbor and loving God. When we remember all of that, we might pause when we hear this story about Jesus refusing to heal this woman’s daughter. It is a story that sounds so much like the stories of the countless people who followed Jesus into the wilderness. So why would he hesitate here?
It is curious that the woman who approaches Jesus in this story is called a Canaanite. In her commentary on the text, Marilyn Salmon notes that by the time this story would have been recorded, no nation in the area was called Canaan and no people were called Canaanites. By the time of Jesus’ adulthood, this name of a people, which was common in the Hebrew Bible, was already quite out of date. It would be like calling modern day French people Normans. It just wasn't a term used for an existing people group. So, what does the use of this archaic term have to tell us about how to read this passage of scripture?
Salmon thinks it's there to remind us of the power of ancient ethnic tension. Matthew, in calling this woman a Canaanite, instead of a Syrophoenician, as she is called in Mark, the author is reminding the listener of the greatest ancient enemy of the Jewish people, the Canaanites. The oldest books in our Bible rarely say anything good about a Canaanite. They are called everything but children of God. Throughout the most ancient texts, they are portrayed as murderers, rapists, and sexual deviants who profaned God and worshipped idols. In most of the religious stories Jesus heard growing up, Canaanites were villains. Even though, the scholar Mitzi Smith points out, three women in Jesus’ family tree were Canaanite, (Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth), and when Canaanite is used here, we are supposed to understand that Jesus was, in effect, speaking with an enemy.
We might expect Jesus, who healed the Centurion's servant, who hung out with tax collectors and sinners, who was touched by a bleeding woman and desperate lepers, and who chose to not follow all of the hand-washing rituals around eating, to help this unnamed woman as quickly as he did the masses of people who sought him out following the execution of John. But, he doesn’t. At first, he doesn’t respond to her at all. Then, he refuses to help and calls her a dog. His buddies also wanted him to run her off. But, she stayed.
In her commentary on this text, Salmon notes that it can be tempting to try to justify Jesus’ actions here. If you are of the mind that individuals whom you respect can do no wrong, you might say that Jesus must be testing her or otherwise has a good reason not to help her. I would encourage all of us not to do that. Not only does this story not support that reading, it also sets up a precedent where those assumed to be good are never wrong. If this story were to stop at the moment when Jesus refuses to help this woman, it would be stopping at a point when Jesus is doing something wrong, or at the very least, outside of his stated values. Thank God the story doesn’t stop there. The woman gives Jesus the opportunity to practice what he preaches.
Thank God for this woman’s persistence. She would be heard because the future of her family was at stake. Somehow, she knew that Jesus could bring her child healing and she would not leave until he acknowledged her. In her commentary, Mitzi Smith notes that the woman brings some of her own cultural commentary to bear on the situation. In her culture, dogs might be more welcome near the table than they would have in the homes Jesus and the disciples were raised in. Yes, he might call her a dog, but even a dog can eat the crumbs that fall off the table. Or, as Dr. Smith puts it, “One can feed the children and feed the pets, too.”
Hearing her wisdom, Jesus would change his mind. He would say, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And, her daughter was healed. Isn’t it good to follow a Christ who shows us the power of being willing to change our minds and adjust our behavior when someone shows us that we aren’t living up to the values we hold true. And, aren’t we lucky to count this woman as one of our teachers. May we be persistent in fighting for what is right. And, may we be willing to have a faith strong enough to change our minds.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.