Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Boundaries and Faith

Reversals and contrasts mark Matthew’s wonderfully and intricately-woven story of a Canaanite woman’s faith.

August 14, 2011

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Commentary on Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

Boundaries and Faith

Reversals and contrasts mark Matthew’s wonderfully and intricately-woven story of a Canaanite woman’s faith.

Unique to Matthew’s narrative, Jesus in his preaching has challenged his hearers to learn the ways of God’s mercy (see 9:13 and 12:7). Now in a favorite Matthean motif (see 14:13 and elsewhere), Jesus “withdraws” and enters territory in which the boundaries of God’s mercy is tested. 

Under Matthew’s hand Mark’s parallel story (7:24–30) has been completely transformed into a story of remarkable faith in an unexpected place.  In Mark’s story both the culminating reference to the faith of the woman and the disciples, who play so significant a role in this story, are completely absent.  Here as characters and theme they join the central figures of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in an intense and weighty encounter.

Even the animals get into the story as the suggestive and provocative images and roles of sheep and dogs join these characters and permeate the tightly interlocking and contested dialog. One soon wonders just who in the end are meant to be the sheep and who the dogs in this story? And what of the “shepherd” who seems caught in the middle of this exchange? Largely lost in translations is the choral contest that Matthew has set up–with the woman on one side and the disciples (who do not even appear in Mark’s narrative) on the other. 

Identified as a foreigner, still this Canaanite woman has all the appropriate language of a true Israelite. She persistently cries out for God’s mercy (the Greek imperfect underscores the repetition, while in her kyrie eleison one is certainly meant to hear the worship language of the faithful). 

On the other side her pleas are matched by the shouts of the disciples, “get rid of her!” (in the original Greek their words are an alliterative and ironic echo of the woman’s cry: apolyson).  With dramatic effect the story sets before us a Jesus flanked by two competing choruses: on one side one lone creature crying “kyrie eleison,” and on the other a band of bullies shouting her down with their “apolyson.”

Checking IDs

So stretch your imaginations to entertain the scene. Gathered in one corner are those familiar disciples, for Matthew the true blue representatives of the faithful lost sheep of Israel,  now leaping into the fray like so many ravenous beasts, as it were self-styled guarantors of the holy tradition, on their guard lest the mercies of God be wasted on the unworthy. Like a gang of watchdogs at the door they are about the checking of IDs and keeping out the non-pedigreed riffraff.  On the other side of the gate stands this outsider, a woman no less, one lone representative of the dogs of religion, now become as it were a lost sheep plaintively pleading for the mercy of the master shepherd. No English translation can capture Matthew’s careful orchestration of the painful choral refrain. “Lord, have mercy,” the dog’s solo bleating cry. “Get rid of her,” the “lost-sheep chorus” barks back in reply.

And what of the master, the Messiah? Do our ears deceive us when this harbinger of good news now seems to join these “bouncers,” not only refusing to answer her pleas, but even seeming to join in with a few sharp licks of his own. As Matthew’s story makes clear, Jesus reply “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24) is addressed not to the woman but to his disciples. And when not to be put off by Jesus’ silence, she persists in her pleas for help, addressing him again as “Lord,” still Jesus seems to add to the rejection.

Now he addresses her directly with a comment about the injustice of throwing to the “dogs” what belongs to the children (15:26).  Not surprising that the resulting picture of Jesus and his response is so troubling that many interpreters have sought to soften or explain away the clear and direct language of the text.

Faith Stands its Ground

And here the stage is set for an astounding reversal. Surely here we meet the climactic focus of this story, that wondrously-strange and persistent faith that stands its ground against all opposition. This woman is not to be put off, and against all the signs of apparent hopelessness, doggedly stands her ground, persistently seeking the Lord’s help, even if it is only to be in those meager crumbs that might fall from the “master’s” table. And in the wonderful surprise that is the miracle of faith, she meets the gracious healing power of God’s Messiah.

Matthew’s Jesus has elsewhere chastised the “little faith” of these disciples (8:26; 14:31; 16:8), but here, in the only occurrence of this conjoined adjective in the whole New Testament, Jesus praises the “great faith” of this woman and commands that her plea be granted. No sooner are the words spoken than it is done. We are told that the woman’s daughter is healed instantly (in contrast Mark’s narrative delays the discovery until the woman returns home; 7:30).  As if in response to this “great faith,” in the verses that follow today’s lesson, Jesus breaks out in healings that amaze the crowds and call forth the praises of God (15:29-31).

And what of us who hear this story? Can it be that its subtle reversals and surprises intend to work some transformation in our lives as well? To open us up to see the wondrously extravagant reaches of God’s mercies? For surely this is the gospel’s call for all Jesus’ followers, constantly at risk as potential “unfaiths,” not to assume the role of greedy bouncers at the door checking IDs, but to take our places on our knees as ones who cling for mercy with that same persistent faith that turns us around and plants us shoulder to shoulder with this woman, side by side with all the outcasts, the wounded, the hungry, the lonely, the homeless.

It seems hardly accidental that this story is placed within a framework of Jesus’ Galilean ministry in Matthew that begins in 14:13-21 with the story of the feeding of the five thousand and is followed almost immediately by the story of the feeding of the four thousand (15:32-39). In these stories the compassionate mercy of God, the persistence of faith, and the gift of that bread which supplies our every need are all bound together. Elbow to elbow around the master’s table, as we receive even a meager morsel, a few crumbs, by God’s mercy they become for us the gift of finest wheat, a saving Word of hope and renewal and life.

The longer reading that includes verses 10-20 just preceding this story may be joined to this one by this common theme of bread and eating, but more likely should be linked around the themes of clean and unclean, and inside and outside. Much like the story of the Canaanite woman, Jesus’ parable raises questions about the understanding of where the boundaries of God’s mercies are to be located. Traditional ways of locating what is unclean or outside are called into question as Jesus calls for a new understanding and a new heart as the origin and center of God’s ways among us.

Like the story of the woman who as an outsider experiences God’s mercy and so challenges a too-narrow tradition that would want to restrict God’s mercies to a chosen few, so these sayings invite a reexamination of our hearts and call us to a new appraisal of the expansive reach of God’s mercies.