Jesus, a Canaanite Woman, and an Expanded Vision of the Kingdom of God


 (Artwork: “The One with the Crumby Dog” by Ally Barrett)

The Lectionary Gospel for this weekend (August 16, 2020) is Matthew 15:21-28. It is a portion of Scripture in which Jesus finds himself confronted with a desperate and terrified Gentile mother whose daughter is “tormented by a demon.”

Interestingly, the same story is recorded in Mark 7:24-30. The primary editorial difference in the two iterations of the story is that, in Mark’s Gospel, the woman is a Syrophoenician, and in Matthew’s Gospel, she is a Canaanite. The common racial/sociological/religious denominator, however, remains intact in both versions of the encounter: This desperate mother is a non-Jewish female, meaning that she faces a two-fold dynamic that many in her social milieu would have been happy to highlight. First, she was a Gentile—a non-Jewish person—in a world where racial and religious categories were clearly defined, widely recognized, and fiercely maintained. And, second, she was a woman—a non-male—in a world where gender defined both social positioning and agency.

In the story, the Gentile woman begs Jesus to provide deliverance and healing for her daughter. Jesus, at first, ignores her, offering her the pain of agonizing silence in the midst of her maternal anguish. Had she expected the silence? Perhaps. After all, her gender, race, and religious identification were all wrong for the scenario. She was a non-Jewish woman, living on the other side of a covenant community’s line of demarcation. It may have been that Jesus’ silence was all too familiar to her, like a stale but recognizable air that she had to breathe in yet again.

The disciples, no doubt taking their cue from Jesus’ initial silence, implore him to send her away. It is the nature of discrimination, I suppose, to identify the outsider, label her, and work for her dismissal. This is precisely what the disciples do: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” We do not normally like to think of the disciples of Jesus as perpetuators of discrimination or rejection. But discrimination and rejection are exactly the response that they offer to this hurting woman.

Those of you who are parents, imagine being treated so dismissively and disrespectfully if you were seeking help for your hurting or troubled child. Allow the pain of that imagined situation to become one of the hermeneutics that you bring to this Scripture.

But, no worries, right? Because Jesus is there. Surely Jesus will immediately rebuke the disciples for their discriminatory proclivities and hard-heartedness. Surely Jesus will immediately speak up for this hurting woman, thereby redeeming her suffering and restoring her beloved daughter to health. Surely Jesus will quickly manifest the love of God’s heart toward this woman and her daughter. Right?

Well, not exactly. At least not immediately.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus says to the woman when he finally emerges from his initial silence. (Translation: “I was sent only to a particular people, and I’m afraid that you and your daughter are not a part of the people I was sent to save.”)

Again, utilize your imagination so that the gravity of this moment is not too quickly sidestepped. Ponder what it would feel like to be met with abject rejection from a healer about whom you have heard so much, simply because you were not a part of his preestablished theological itinerary.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The woman, stunningly, refuses to leave. She kneels, daring to show respect and reverence in the face of abject rejection. Then she speaks, with an even greater sense of urgency: “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds to her by moving from the already-articulated rejection to a pointed insult: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Translation: “Since I was sent specifically to the Jewish people, it would be inappropriate to take their designated salvation and offer it to ‘dogs’ like you and your daughter.”)

By the way, I am not exaggerating or distorting the text. This is Jesus. The One whom Christians embrace as Messiah. The One in whom the fulness of God was pleased to dwell. The One who gave his life for the world but who, in this moment, seemingly dismisses and insults a heartbroken woman who is kneeling before him on behalf of her hurting daughter.

What would you have done if you were the woman who had just been called a “dog” by the healer from whom she had come to seek help? Personally, I probably would have been looking for a quick exit out of the encounter. If the rejection had not already inspired me to head for the door, the insult would have completed the task. Personal dignity is at stake here, not to mention the dignity of her daughter. This woman’s sense of urgency, however, seems to be far greater than her vulnerability to rejection. Instead of leaving the presence of the man who had just insulted her, she finds her voice and speaks directly into the insult: “Perhaps you are right,” she essentially says to Jesus. “Perhaps I am just a dog. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Remarkable, is it not? This Gentile woman, dismissed by the disciples, insulted by Jesus, somehow finds her voice, pushing back against the very insult that still permeated the air around her. She takes hold of the imagery that Jesus places before her and expands it so that she and her daughter might have a place in it: “Perhaps you are right, Jesus. Maybe I am lowly in the scheme of things. But do not even lowly animals deserve some crumbs and scraps from the table so that they do not starve?”

When Jesus recognizes that he has been met heart to heart and word for word by this woman whose determination seems to be every bit as deep as her concern for her daughter, he transitions from rejection to embrace, from insult to affirmation: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” We are told that, instantly, the woman’s daughter is healed.

Thanks be to God for the miraculous healing and the transformational grace of Jesus that it illuminates! But, what about the strange and painful journey it took to get there? Yes, Jesus ultimately restored the woman’s daughter to health. But what do we do with a Jesus who initially ignores, rejects, and insults?

Like many of you, I have experienced several sermons that have taken great pains to tidy up this moment of Scripture. I have probably even preached some of those sermons. “Jesus was only testing the woman, helping her to arrive at a faith response that she would not have been able to generate had he not put her through rejection and insult.” Or, “Jesus intended to heal the daughter all along. He simply had to drive the woman into a deeper desperation before the healing could be fully realized.” Or, “Jesus didn’t really mean the rejection or the insult. He was simply helping the woman to access a deeper sense of belief in the healing power of God.”

Perhaps one or all of these interpretations is accurate. Perhaps Jesus was simply leading the woman into a painful but important test, helping her to join him on the sacred ground upon which he is already standing. If you embrace such a reading of the text, I certainly will not divide with you over it.

What must be taken seriously, though, is that the text itself does not suggest such an interpretation. Nor does the text itself imply that Jesus was offering to this woman something other than an authentic, if spontaneous, response. Beyond this, even if this were a test to which Jesus was subjecting the woman, would it lessen our discomfort at all to think of Jesus testing a suffering woman by means of a rejection and an insult that would have seemed all too real to her, even if they were not “real” to Jesus?

When we think of Jesus’ Incarnation, his mystical journey into human flesh, we tend to make some assumptions. We sometimes assume, for example, that, as the Son of God, Jesus came into the world already holding the totality of his Father’s expansive and comprehensive worldview. We assume that Jesus never had to experience any growth, any change, or any development. If that is the theological assumption with which one approaches this Biblical story, the only alternative is to conclude that Jesus’ dismissive insult toward the woman is indeed nothing more than an elaborate, albeit hurtful, test, offered en route to his hidden and redemptive agenda.

But, what if (and, please, bear with my prayerful exploration)…

…What if the Son of God came into this world fully prepared to expand his vision and understanding of his own ministry? What if Jesus’ Incarnation is not only a glorious event (which we rightly celebrate at Christmas) but also a progressive journey, impacted and shaped by every one of his encounters, including this encounter with a Gentile woman? What if the Word becoming flesh required the vulnerability of growth—vulnerability in which a Jesus (as human as he was divine) allowed himself to learn through experience that the Kingdom his Father sent him to inaugurate was even more expansive than what his disciples (and perhaps the Gospel writers) had originally believed?

In other words, what if Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is less of a calculated test and more of a kairotic moment in which Jesus experiences a genuine and existential confirmation of a more expansive vision for his mission and purpose, triggered by the brave prompting of a Gentile woman who simply would not go away?

If that were at all the case, then Jesus, in his stark encounter with this desperate woman, calls to mind the very church that is built upon his Lordship and governed by it. Every day, the church, like Jesus with the woman, is confronted with the challenge of reconceptualizing pre-conceived categories in order to manifest more fully a divine love and grace that stubbornly resist categorization. The church’s long and ugly history with racism and bigotry bears witness to how frequently we have been content with distorted vision and malformed worldviews. In practice, the church has often bailed out of the story at the point of insult and rejection instead of joining Jesus in the work of embracing the “other” and seeing the world differently.

It makes me all the more grateful for this Canaanite woman, who dared to see past the boundaries that the people in her world were all too eager to enforce. Her voice speaks God’s very heart into a painful moment, reminding even Jesus of what he was coming to understand more clearly in her presence—that there are no mutts in God’s ever-expanding Kingdom (or Kin-dom) and that no one is excluded in the salvation that God is envisioning for this world and offering to it.

If you have read this far, you might be at the point of saying, “No way! The Jesus I love and worship wouldn’t have needed to change or grow. It was just a difficult test for a woman who needed precisely the hard push that Jesus was providing.”

Perhaps you are right.

Personally, I am intrigued and strangely comforted by the thought of a Jesus who loved us enough to enter fully into every portion of the vulnerability of the human condition—including the vulnerability of having to grow and learn. And, when Jesus found himself confronted with the possibility that his mission was even more wide-ranging than the people around him had initially assumed, he did not blink or back down. Instead, he stepped beyond the well-enforced boundaries in order to bring salvation to a Canaanite woman and the Gentile world that she represented.

I am praying that the church never forgets who its Jesus is, especially in an age when the work of dismantling sins like racism and bigotry is more urgent than ever. Like Jesus, may his church dare to engage with the “Canaanite women” (marginalized and desperate souls) who are standing somewhere nearby, wondering if there are any “crumbs” for them from the tables we hold sacred. Like Jesus, may we hear the Word of God in their voices. May we sense the calling of God in their outcries. And may we discern the very face of God in their freshly illuminated countenances.

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