TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
"Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon."
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
Jesus' disciples came and asked him,
"Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us."
He said in reply,
"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, "Lord, help me."
He said in reply,
"It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs."
She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters."
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
"O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish."
And the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.
It has been a few Sundays since we last examined Matthew’s Gospel, and this Sunday we find ourselves all the way to Chapter 15. R.T. France notes in his commentary that Chapter 15 will be followed shortly by Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. If you are studying the entire text of Matthew through the year, you are in good position to understand this episode about the Canaanite woman and her encounter with Jesus in the context of the “before and after.”
Sunday’s Gospel is preceded by a much longer segment (15: 1-20) on a seemingly pedestrian matter, the failure of the disciples to wash their hands. I have spent the past three weeks on a cruise ship and several planes; it is now common to have ship attendants at the entrance of each restaurant or public eating place personally squirting sanitizer into our hands to avoid the spread of such medical problems as the norovirus. Israel, in Jesus’ day, did not make a connection between handwashing and prophylaxis. For Jews, the issue of washing was part and parcel of a psycho-spiritual self-consciousness of personal and corporate identity of cleanness in the sense of holiness. Israel was that nation chosen by God, set apart, pure and uncontaminated by the pagan gentile world around it.
France writes that “it is hard to exaggerate the significance of ritual purity for the Pharisaic ideology.... In order to participate in the life and worship of God’s holy people a person must avoid ‘defilement’ which might arise through eating or drinking unclean food, through unclean bodily conditions, especially those involving fluid discharges….” [p. 576] This ritual lapse of the disciples—and maybe more to the point, Jesus’ reluctance to bring his followers to heel—opens the door to a dispute between the Master and Pharisees and scribes who have come from Jerusalem. Note that Chapter 15 takes place outside of Jerusalem, at some distance, where the population was mixed religiously, and where we might expect an encounter with a Canaanite [pagan] women.
But before Sunday’s text, Jesus issues a broadside against a religious mentality so strongly fixated on external specifics, and even beyond that, to a definition of cleanness—holiness and goodness—dependent upon outside influences. Jesus, in his explanation to his disciples, issues his famous dictum that “it is not what comes into the mouth that makes a person unclean, but what comes out of the mouth—that is what makes a person unclean. [15:11] Earlier in the chapter Jesus quotes Isaiah on the necessity of religion of the heart: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me; it is in vain that they worship me, teaching people to obey merely human rules.” [15: 8-9]
This sets the table for Sunday’s reading which, as noted above, is far afield from Jerusalem. France puts considerable emphasis upon this sojourn to Phoenicia as an intentional junket into gentile territory to make a point. It would be inevitable that he would meet a Canaanite here, and Matthew sets up the question of what would Jesus do for her or say to her. In this case the petitioner, a pagan mother, is unclean, in Jewish theological thinking, simply as a pagan; moreover, her daughter is possessed by a demon, a personification of evil and uncleanness.
This text is easily misunderstood. The woman’s faith, whatever its interior formulation in her mind, is sincere and intense. Matthew notes that she “kept shouting.” She seeks nothing for herself but acknowledges Jesus in a divine idiom [“lord”] and as a reliable source of mercy for her daughter’s dilemma of demonic possession. Given her disposition, it is not bad enough that the disciples beg Jesus to send her away, but that Jesus himself says nothing, “not a word.” Even France describes the petition and initial response as “labored and painful.” [p. 590] The reader is left with two options of interpretation, neither of them very consoling. The text might convey Jesus’ effort to “tease out” greater faith from the woman, which at the least seems quite insensitive. Or it may be that in Jesus’ mind he was sent exclusively for the redemption of Israel; if this is the case, then the woman has pulled him off course with her entreaties.
The Christological branch of theology has long studied the Gospels for clues about what Jesus actually believed and thought. Most famous is the question of whether he knew he was divine in the sense we know he is divine, Second Person of the Trinity. Our Trinitarian terminology comes from the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. and thus does not help us here. Matthew, Mark, and Luke would seem to indicate collectively that Jesus recognized a call to a unique mission, and he himself used the term “Son of Man” in these Gospels, which is not a divine equivalent.
Given the reality of the Incarnation, that the divine became human and thus adopted human characteristics and limitations, it is not blasphemous to hold that Jesus probably did come to gradual awakening of the scope of his mission. After his baptism Jesus collected a group of twelve to reestablish the twelve tribes of Israel. It may be that early in his ministry Jesus understood his mission—and his target audience—as the lost sheep of Israel. However, if one reads Matthew’s Gospel from cover to cover, one sees that much of that targeted audience was unreceptive, even hostile to him, as we saw in his efforts to correct the concept of cleanness above.
The harshness of this text is undeniable. Jesus rejects her request several times, and his admonition that “"It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs" is grating, though the New Testament uses the term “dogs” and “pagans” interchangeably at times. That said, there are some mitigating factors that balance our interpretation.
First, when push comes to shove, we will never know exactly what Jesus thought, but we have a better chance of understanding what the early church thought about pagans, i.e., it evidently required pagans to become Jews before admitting them to Christian baptism. St. Paul is venerated as the Apostle to the Gentiles precisely because he was able to convince the twelve that pagans could be baptized without circumcision, that it was not necessary to become Jewish to become Christian. This “Council of Jerusalem” described in the Acts of the Apostles has often been dated around 50 A.D., or about two decades after Christ. Historians feel confident enough with the idea that the church took some time in accepting a universal mission to the Gentiles and gradually disengaging from temple and synagogue.
Second, the woman’s repeated rejections only strengthen her faith and wisdom; her “even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” is a brilliant demonstration of just how deep her faith really is. It amazes Jesus. What Matthew has depicted here is precisely the kind of faith Jesus has not found in Israel, particularly in the first section of Chapter 15. The Canaanite woman receives Jesus’ blessing and intervention. What seems at first glance to be a series of abject denials from Jesus may be a Matthean literary device to contrast the hard-heartedness of the “chosen people” with the intense faith of a pagan Canaanite. Faith is faith. A good heart will eventually find place at the Lord’s table. A happy conclusion to an admittedly protracted test of faith.