Preachers face a serious temptation with this week's reading from Matthew.
We quite naturally expect the gospels to portray Jesus as the one in the story who displays wisdom, compassion, and godly virtues. Jesus will expose deceit and self-interest. But quite frankly, Jesus does not come off well in this encounter with the Canaanite woman. It is tempting to justify Jesus' unseemly behavior or pretend we did not see it. If we can resist this temptation to save Jesus, and us, from embarrassment, we might discover some new insights in the Gospel story of Jesus as Matthew tells it.
First, Jesus ignores the Canaanite woman's plea for mercy for her daughter. He responds to her by saying, in effect, that her needs are not any concern of his. When she persists, he insults her with a derogatory term that displays ancient hostilities toward one of Israel's ancient enemies. He likens this woman, her daughter, her kind, to dogs begging for scraps from the table. According to Mark's version of this story, the woman is identified as a Syro-Phoenician woman. Matthew's account features a Canaanite woman. The reference to "Canaanite" evokes deeply ingrained national prejudice.
Some commentators suggest that "Syro-Phoenician" or "Canaanite" indicate merely that the woman is a gentile, and both descriptions evoke Jewish antipathy to gentiles. But this view implies that all Jews loathed and avoided all non-Jews. First-century Jews were diverse in their attitudes toward gentiles and interactions with them in Jesus' time, as well as when the Gospel of Matthew was written late in the first century. Matthew's Gospel story has many references to gentiles, some positive and some negative. The gospel writer displays common Jewish attitudes by describing gentiles as exhibiting despicable behavior. For example, Jesus says, "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do." (6:7). When admonishing disciples not to worry about food or drink or clothing, he says, "For it is the gentiles who strive for all these things." (6:32) But in the parable of the last judgment, when all the gentiles are gathered before the Son of Man, he separates the sheep from the goats. Some gentiles are "sheep" who inherit the kingdom and some are "goats" who do not. (25:31ff) And at the end of Matthew, the resurrected Jesus sends his disciples forth to raise up disciples among the gentiles. (28:19)
Matthew's usual term for gentiles, sometimes translated "nations," is ethnē or panta ta ethnē. This is the common term for gentiles, or non-Jews, in Jewish literature written in Greek during that period. It may have negative or positive connotations, or it may be neutral. The designation "Canaanite" certainly defines the woman as a gentile, but not just any gentile. The term conveys deep-seated historical biases that "Syro-Phoenician" does not. The referent is biblical. There were no Canaanites living in the first century, so the label does not describe present-day encounters. The label evokes historical conflicts and thus defines the woman in terms of age-old prejudices a first-century Jewish audience would understand. This distinction is important for two reasons. First, it challenges a common Christian assumption that Jews shunned all interaction with non-Jews. Second, it gives a different slant to Jesus' actions.
We know the gospel narrative is about Jesus and look to him for the meaning of this story. We would be amiss, however, if we did not pay close attention to the woman in this story. The Canaanite woman models the most admirable human behavior, not Jesus. She shows willingness to be vulnerable by seeking help from a longstanding foe whom she knows despises her because of national and racial divisions. She asks for help for her daughter, not for herself. She is persistent in the face of insults and rejection, for her daughter's sake. The Canaanite woman has the best lines in the story, especially her last one. "Call me dog," she says, "but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table." She is the clear underdog (pun intended) who wins the prize of highest value for any mother, Jew or despised Canaanite -- her child's health and well-being.
Of course the story is about Jesus. We see a very human Jesus. We see ourselves mirrored in Jesus' attitude toward the Canaanite woman, but not our best selves. We know very well the tendency to define and fear an "other" on the basis of skin color, nationality, class, or creed, deeply ingrained stereotypes that go back generations or even centuries. We resent being bothered by the concerns of those people. We have our own children to care for. When they persist, insisting on equal treatment and justice for their children, we resort to racial slurs and insults. And we are very good at justifying our actions rather than admitting the prejudice that persist.
The story is about Jesus, and in Jesus we see the very best of human potential in relationships with others, even those we avoid and fear. We see in Jesus the possibility of perceiving common humanity where we could see only difference. And when we encounter the "other" as one who shares our humanity, we can never see them as "other" again. The Canaanite woman has the best lines in this story, but Jesus has the last word: "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." Not "Canaanite woman" but simply "woman." She will never be defined by national or racial or religious prejudice again. She is now a mother like any other who desperately seeks help for her child. And for this mother's sake, Jesus heals her daughter. And perhaps Jesus heals us, too, from the temptation to hang on to old stereotypes and habits that prevent us from embracing our common humanity.