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The Faith of the Canaanite Woman
by Cadet Claire O'Brien-Hawk


An Exegetical Paper on Matthew 15:21-28


Matthew 15:21-28 is a particularly troubling passage. In it, we experience a Jesus vastly different from the one we have come to know and expect. The words and actions of Jesus in this passage are brutal; they would be hard to stomach coming from anyone, but they are especially so coming from him. The passage has been characterized as, “totally devoid of conciliatory overtones” and, “as designed to wound a human heart.”[1] Many people have tried to make sense of this uncomfortable passage, but the results have often been dissatisfactory. These inadequate readings have given rise to and been used as authorization for violence perpetrated against countless groups of people.  One such group is women who have lived as prisoners in a world where unregulated and unhealthy feminine submission is idealized and justified. Then, there are the people of Israel who have been cast off and judged, replaced (so say countless Christians) with the "New Israel". Finally, the masses of unnamed people who have been subject to the actions of formal and informal colonizers, many of whom have found colonizing precedents in passages such as that of the Canaanite Woman.


The way we read and understand this passage has serious consequences, not only for the way Christians navigate life, but also for all those who are subjected to the far-reaching influence of Christians. I believe that a faithful reading of this passage can be used to propagate health and wellness where there has been disease and damage. To do so will require reading this passage in its proper place, as the story of Jesus. To take this passage out of context and search it for answers to our questions about gender and ethnic relations is to do bad work. A thoughtful reading will show this to be a passage about the abundance of God, an abundance that gives hope for the future wellness of all people under the blessings of Israel's God. These blessings cannot be received apart from Israel, however;[2] God is faultlessly faithful to Israel in her role as God's chosen people and as the channel of his blessing. In this passage, we see a Jesus who, unwilling to deny a person in need, and not commissioned to tend to any outside of Israel, draws sincere Gentile seekers in, struggling with them for their blessing, and willing them to understand that their participation in God's favor must come through Israel. In the story of the Canaanite Mother, we witness such a struggle. Jesus drives this woman forward in her plea, struggling with her toward the confession that enables her blessing.


The narrative of the Canaanite Woman centers on a dialogue between Jesus and a woman. The woman is described as a Canaanite and a mother; both of these designations are significant. As there were no longer any self-proclaiming Canaanites at the time of Jesus, and as Matthew has changed Mark's Syrophoenician to a Canaanite, we should understand the title to be significant.


One item of significance about Canaanites is that within Israel's history, no enemy is more notorious. These people regularly led Israel into infidelity to God. Beside the inherent problems of being out of step with God, when Israel wandered, they brought devastating physical consequences on themselves. Canaanites were a dangerous people and a marked enemy. The hate of the Jews toward Canaanites was not arbitrary; they had developed almost an evolutionary reaction to them -by hating and avoiding the Canaanites, the Jews were preserved. By casting a Canaanite to play across Jesus, Matthew has set up the most fractured and acrimonious relationship possible.


Though I certainly do not want to diminish the content of the dialogue -because it is very important-, the ultimate result of the interaction is that Jesus acquiesces to the Canaanite's request by healing her daughter. In a relationship that has been marred by malevolence, Jesus not only discontinues the cycle of violence but he begins a new pattern, one of healing and helping.

When hope and restoration are given to the Jews and Canaanites, of all relationships, we should understand that all the lesser-fractured relationships in society share in that same hope of redemption. What is true for the extreme circumstances must also hold true for the more moderate.


The second interesting description is that this woman is a mother. Why a mother? What is distinctive about the mother-child relationship when compared to any other relationship between a caregiver and care-receiver? Perhaps the significance is to be gleaned from the fact that children represent the future, the continued existence of the present generation. According to this reading, when the Canaanite mother pleads for her child, she is also pleading with Jesus for the future of her people.


It is not clear what kind of arrangement the women had in mind when pleading with Jesus. What was she offering or confessing in return for his healing? Anything? We have seen that the women hails him as "Lord"[3] and "Son of David", and these seem to indicate her recognition of Jesus as the coming Messiah. This is promising, but we see even among the learned Jews of the age that naming Jesus as Davidic King and Messiah did not necessarily involve an understanding of his character, mission, or mode. Many who acknowledged Jesus as Messiah expected him to assume political power and establish a physical kingdom.


Perhaps in asking for the future of her people, the Canaanite woman is only yet hoping for a continued existence under the rule of an enemy. Not asking for assimilation and acceptance into Israel, maybe she merely wants her people to be allowed to exist independently, in peace. This is not such a stretch to imagine; typically, it was not the desire of an occupied people to have their identity dissolved and to be absorbed into the culture of the occupiers. It may be that hope behind this woman's request was to receive the blessing without the association.


The disciples certainly seem to believe that the Canaanite woman was looking simply for a quick fix. They encourage Jesus to "send her away" and one might imagine the sentiment was, "give her what she wants so that she will leave us alone! Satisfy her need, so we can be done with it!” The disciples were not particular with Jesus' power and God's blessing -willing to dole it out for the cheap purposes of convenience and comfort. For Jesus, however, this is not enough. His resistance to healing under these terms is two-fold.


To begin with, Jesus is cognizant that the blessing of God is one that has been promised to Israel. Beginning with the Abrahamic covenant, Israel has been the recipient and the minister of God's blessing to all other people. To bless a person outside of these conditions is not a neutral act: it is equal to negating the role of Israel as it has stood through its whole history, the role by which Israel understands its present and its future. For a Gentile to acquire God's blessing by circumventing Israel is to cheat. Such an act is sneaky and constitutes foul play. Jesus will not do this. He is faithful to his people even when they seem blind to his identity and Gentiles seem receptive. Because of his faithfulness to the Jews, Jesus is constrained in his healing act: he cannot heal someone who seeks their healing outside of and separate from Israel. To receive God's blessing, one must enter through God's people, his chosen instrument.[4]


For Jesus, the physical healing for this woman's daughter is not enough. He is not just a miracle-worker on call to respond to the people's needs. He has so much more to offer. Ironically, Jesus withholding his power does more for the woman than the dispensation of Jesus' power at the disciples' request would have achieved. Jesus refuses to cheapen his blessings through careless and indiscriminate administration. By demanding something of the Canaanite Mother before agreeing to her request, Jesus draws her into a deeper and more meaningful encounter. He refuses to pay her off, as though she were a meaningless bother, a 'nothing person', more fit to receive a quick-fix from Jesus' power the than the serious engagement of her person and her need. Ironically, though it is the disciples who are first willing to give the woman what she wants, it is Jesus who sees her need and brings her to the place where she can truly be satisfied.


Many people speculate about the woman's understanding of Jesus. Was she just looking for a magician? Did she believe him to be the coming King of Israel? Did she acknowledge him as the Son of God and the proper object of worship? The importance of these questions fades when we recognize that regardless of her understanding of him, Jesus understood her. Jesus knew that she had a great need and he also knew that he could not bless her outside of Israel. Notice that Jesus does not send her away unsatisfied; he draws her in, allowing for a tension and a dialogue to develop. Jesus engages with her in a very painful way, but this pain brings the woman to point of desperation and to the climax of the interaction: her confession of Israel as the priority in Jesus' mission and, more miraculously, the acknowledgement that even after Israel, Jesus had more to give. Jesus knew that for his help to be legitimate, she must understand it as the surplus of his bounty, not as the redistribution of a limited supply. So he fights and struggles with her until she makes this confession. Though Jesus' words seem harsh, he actually speaks in such a way as to drive the women toward the key for her miracle. Jesus neither fought against the woman, nor had his mind changed and enlightened by her; he knew her need and pushed and drove her, fighting for her to receive the blessing.


It is very interesting that the Canaanite Woman's faith is commended after she cries out about the abundance of God's goodness and provision. It is not merely the fact that Jesus can heal her daughter, but the fact that even after providing for the needs of all his people, he has leftovers for not-his-people. God caring for my needs is less impressive if he stops caring for your needs to do so. A God who never neglects you but has enough also for me... that is a God worthy of praise. This God of abundance has, throughout history, cared for Israel and made provision for the rest of the nations. It is the Canaanite Mother's recognition of this God that makes her an example of faith.


It is no surprise to find, surrounding this pericope, the narratives of the feedings. Prior to this passage, Jesus feeds 5,000, collecting 12 baskets of leftovers, likely representative of the 12 tribes of Israel. Following the story of the Canaanite mother, Jesus feeds 4,000, collecting seven baskets of leftovers. This number seven is indicative of the seven great enemies of Israel mentioned in Deuteronomy 7. In both circumstances, there is a plethora of food leftover after the needs of the people have been met. In taking the two narratives together, we see that Jesus is enough to supply the needs of all the nations, even in addition to Israel. This is a wild contrast to the current situation in Israel: a pervasive feeling of scarcity and panic.


Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has been angry with the false shepherds of the people, leaders who oppress the people rather than sustaining them. These leaders are a burden on the people rather than a help to them. In the pericope just preceding the story of the Canaanite Mother, Jesus has had a run-in with the Pharisees and Sadducees, accusing them of prioritizing the traditions of the elders over the spirit of the Law. The context of the argument is the failure of Jesus' disciples to wash their hands before eating. Now, I certainly do not want to side against Jesus in this matter, but the Pharisees may have started out with good intentions when they began to regulate the minutia of Israel's life. As previously mentioned, the Gentiles in the surrounding territories were very dangerous to the well-being of Israel. They lured Israel into infidelity and Israel always paid the price. At some point, Israel got wise and instituted practices that would keep them separate from the Gentiles. One of these practices was the hand-washing rituals. The problem with these practices, however, is that they were divisive among the people. They created among the people of Israel a spirit of panic and anxiety. Rather than wholly trusting God and sharing in his provisions, members of Israel were high-strung and controlling, living as if they had to fight for their daily bread.


This ‘fight-for-your-own’ behavior has led to the oppression of people who cannot fight, or who fight but do not win. This behavior has sickened Jesus throughout the Gospel. Where Jesus hopes to see a sharing of resources and justice, he is affronted by leaders who try to accumulate power and goods and hold them in reserve. It is hard not to think back to the Israelites wandering in the desert, being instructed not to collect more than a day's worth of manna, trusting for God to provide for their needs. Jesus is tempted toward, and decides against, this very take-control, do-things-my-way behavior when fasting in the desert. Jesus essentially responds that he will trust in the provision of God rather than trying to hoard power for himself. It is this characteristic faith in the abundant provision and care of God that the Canaanite Mother demonstrates. She does not grab for her own slice of Jesus' power, but acknowledges and trusts that even if she is not the first fed, she will have enough. The Canaanite Mother here does not show us a new way of doing faith, but she represents in a new situation what this total trust and confidence in God looks like.


If we then are to imitate the example of faith that the Canaanite Mother sets before us, we need to do so by acknowledging and trusting in the abundance of God. This will have vast implications for the way we live our lives. In simple person-to-person interactions, we will willingly take the second turn, trusting that the goodness that God has in store does not run out after the first round of people have received it. It also has larger implications, for instance, in the way nations interact with each other. When we trust that, "man does not survive on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God", when we live our lives in that total dependence on the God who has never failed to sustain us and to profit us in our faithfulness, we will stop fighting amongst each other for resources and for power. We will recognize that these behaviors only serve to tear each other down in a way that is most displeasing to God. To read the narrative of the Canaanite Woman compels us to see in Jesus a man who knows our need and knows how to fulfill our need before we fully understand it ourselves. To read this story is to be confronted with a God who, yes, sometimes leaves us in tension, but who ultimately draws in and wholly satisfies any who will wait on him, trusting that his abundance is enough for the needs of all people, each in their turn.


[1] Amy-Jill Levine, “Matthew’s Advice to a Divided Readership,” in The Gospel of Matthew in current study: studies in memory of William G. Thompson, S.J., ed. William G. Thompson and David Edward Aune (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2001), 31, Accessed August 12, 2013, Fuller Library eReserves.

[2] To be “part of Israel” does not mean strict obedience to the tradition of the elders, as the Pharisees and Sadducees have instructed. In the preceding passage, Jesus shows some of the traditions of the elders to be at odds with the spirit and letter of the Law.

[3] ‘Lord’ can be used as a term of general respect, but since it is paired so closely with ‘Son of David’, it is likely that these terms are both Christocentric.

[4] This rule of entering is not unprecedented. Though Naaman preferred to wash in one of the rivers familiar to him, to receive the healing he so desperately needed, he was required to wash in the Jordan. Upon doing so, he acknowledged the God of Israel.








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