August 9, 2020 by
David Jackson in
Reflections on Sunday Gospels
Matthew 15: 21-28
The story of the Canaanite woman has been characterized in different ways. Kenneth Bailey in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes states: “This story is often viewed as a troubling embarrassment. A sincere foreign woman seeks help from Jesus. At first he ignores her. He then appears to exhibit racism and insensitivity to her suffering as he insults her in public.” p.217
Donald Senior in The Gospel of Matthew states, “The story of the Canaanite woman is a remarkable text…” p. 130
Catholic Worker, Jeff Dietrich, titles his reflection in the “Agitator,” “Exorcising the Demons from Jesus.” “She (Canaanite woman) has exorcized Jesus and transformed the entire kingdom project. If it had not been for the Canaanite woman, there would have been no second wilderness feeding to the Gentiles. Because of her, the liberating message of the Kindom would include not just the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but all of the lost sheep, all of the expendable victims of empire…Henceforth there would be no more unclean people, no expendables, no dogs, no excuse for treating anyone as less than human. The legacy of the Canaanite woman continues to this day.” Jeff’s description of the kingdom project does I believe reflect the kingdom as envisioned by Jesus. Dietrich says: “It would be difficult to overestimate the centrality of this solitary female figure of “great Faith” set as she is in the midst of a multitude of men who are portrayed either as faithless (the disciples) or blind (the religious authorities) or murderous (Herod).”
Bailey’s exploration of the Canaanite woman stresses that a critical component in both the parables of Jesus and the dramatic stories about him is the ever-present community. He states that Jesus pretends indifference. By ignoring the woman’s desperate cries he appears to endorse views toward women with which the disciples were comfortable. “The text can be understood as follows: Jesus is irritated by the disciples’ attitudes regarding women and Gentiles.”
This view is in conflict with that of Don Senior and Dietrich. Senior sees Jesus himself emphatically resisting the extension of his mission to the Gentiles. Senior has an entire chapter on “Matthew and the Mission to the Gentiles” (Chapter 4). Dietrich sees Jesus as downright rude to the woman and rejecting her plea in a most uncompassionate manner. His interpretation is: Jesus “here shows himself to be filled with the same demons of nationalism and patriarchy that he had just criticized in the religious authorities.” In the quick retort of the woman Dietrich sees Jesus stopped in his tracks, knocked over so to speak. “In a single instant she has exorcised from Jesus, the demons of nationalism, religious righteousness, segregation, and patriarchy. Just as he restored the Gerasene demoniac to his right mind, she has restored Jesus to his right mind.”
In the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel vs. 21 we read, “When his (JESUS’) relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” So to me it is not an exaggerated interpretation to have the Canaanite woman restoring Jesus to his right mind. This story is clearly dealing with sexism (not talking to a woman), nationalism and racism (dealing with a Gentile outsider) and patriarchy (superiority of males). In this story Jesus overcomes the ethnic, cultural, political, gender, and religious barriers humans have created. It is clearly a powerful story of the compassion of the boundary breaking Jesus for the woman, her daughter and the disciples.
As Bailey calls our attention to the ever present community in the parables and stories of Jesus, Senior calls our attention to “Mission within the context of Matthew’s narrative world” (A subheading in Chapter 4). Matthew’s community was struggling with the opening to the Gentiles that they were experiencing. Senior titles 13:54-16:12 The Mission Resumed. “…Matthew follows closely the narrative sequence of Mark, but still gives the narrative his own characteristic touch. The corresponding section in Mark (from 4:35 to 8:21) has a strong expansive mission context. Jesus ranges back and forth across the sea and to the borders of Tyre and Sidon, ministering on both the Jewish and Gentile sides of the Lake. Much of this aura remains in Matthew’s narrative, but the mission focus is more diffuse and concentration falls more heavily on the contrasting responses between the leaders of Israel and the disciples.”
It seems to me our challenge is to find ourselves in this story. Do I reflect the attitude of the disciples? Am I experiencing some pain that makes me want to unite my prayer with that of the Canaanite mother “Have mercy on me!” Is the Canaanite woman or some other woman working to exorcize some demon in me? Have I been healed as the daughter in the story was healed?