Commentary on Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
By the time we get to this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus finds himself in foreign territory, namely, the “district of Tyre and Sidon” (15:21). It marks a transition in the focus of Jesus’ ministry and is a signal to Matthew’s community that what follows will address one of their multiple concerns: “Who is Jesus’ mission and message for?” “What does that message ask of this community?” The broader question of course is: “Just how wide is God’s mercy?” This text culminates in a dramatic encounter between Jesus, his disciples, and a “foreigner,” an encounter that intensifies these questions for Matthew’s community. The backdrop for the encounter with the Canaanite woman is deep deliberation among insiders about the complex relationship between their religious traditions and practices and “God’s will”.
Scholarly consensus holds that Matthew’s community is predominantly Jewish, that is, it is made up of those who have been formed within the rich tradition of thought forms and practices that have shaped their understanding of God and “God’s will” for God’s people. Now, since God has given “all authority in heaven and on earth” to a resurrected Jesus (28:18) those traditions have come under scrutiny.
One cannot help but think of those who faithfully show up online or in our sanctuaries to worship together. Rapid changes in our world have brought under scrutiny rich traditions and practices that have guided not only corporate worship but also the ways of keeping faith in the arena of everyday life. Those same traditions have shaped one’s perception of faithful practice but also one’s views of the “other”. Far too often our traditions train us to treat the “other” with fear and to regard “them” as “dirty” and “less than” who “we” are. Fearful tradition-keepers in any age are concerned that interaction with the “other” will pollute and confuse their understanding of who they are.
Ironically, tradition keeping is also vulnerable to another attitude. One can judge that there is nothing of value in one’s tradition and, like some useless commodity, traditions can be thoughtlessly discarded. Both extreme attitudes can restrict faithful obedience to God. On the one hand a traditional practice can become ossified, robbing the tradition-keeper of the vitality of a living faith. On the other hand, impulsively discarding (or even forgetting) a tradition can rob one of the nurturing resources of collective wisdom. One needs a trustworthy, authoritative interpreter.
Matthew presents Jesus as such a one. Jesus for Matthew is a “new Moses” who has come “not to abolish the Law or the prophets but to fulfill” (5:17). What does fulfillment of Torah look like? One moment of that fulfillment happens in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. There is nothing new in it at first. Jesus seems to be going by an old script for such interactions. To our ears, what follows is appalling but to the faithful in Matthew’s community, he reacts to the woman’s request as they would expect of a rabbi in those days. She represents Israel’s notorious ancient foe—the Canaanites! Traditional religious practices and prejudices, designed to guide Israel’s relationship with “outsiders” and “enemies”, would support Jesus’ brusque dismissal of her desperate concern for her daughter. First, he gives her the silent treatment. Then the disciples get into the act: “tell her to lower her voice!” “she’s being annoying!” Then Jesus says (in words that seem to shore up his rabbinic credentials) “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (verse 24). It only gets worse! When she comes kneeling before him, Jesus insults her. She looks to him like a dog begging for crumbs under the table! It is ritualized humiliation.
How long is the silence that ensues after she receives this treatment: Jesus’ shrugging dismissal, the disciples’ complaint that she annoys them, and now with this insulting declaration that the mission of God’s representative on earth does not include her or her daughter? One can almost feel “old wineskins” of religious tradition stretched to the breaking point in the presence of deep human need.
This scene is admittedly a hard one to preach. One may want to get Jesus off the hook and preserve the generic “good guy” Jesus that drifts through tradition, even though this tradition is breaking open right before our eyes. This is who Matthew saw Jesus as being. He has been sent to the house of Israel to be the authoritative interpreter of tradition. The question is this: is Jesus, as the child of and bearer of traditional thought forms, capable of receiving “new wine” as the “new Moses” in his encounter with the “other”?
The tension in the encounter is released with a simple statement of faith. This Canaanite woman has named Jesus as “Lord” and “Son of David,” but when she declares her utter dependence on God’s Grace, Jesus’ tradition-shaped heart breaks open. “Woman, great is your faith!” he declares.
This is what faith and fulfillment look like, Matthew seems to tell us. It recognizes Jesus as God’s agent through whom God makes salvation and justice happen. It also recognizes that Jesus is of Israel, and represents a fulfillment of an ancient promise given to the prophet Isaiah for Israel: “I chose you to bring justice, and am here at your side. I selected you and sent you to bring light and my promise of hope to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6 Common English Version).
It is such a hope that has drawn this Canaanite woman to Jesus with her plea, and in so doing she transgresses boundaries imposed by religious tradition, practice, and prejudice. Faithful Israel was and continues to be a bearer of God’s promise to all nations. Preachers can look to this woman as an ancestor in faith: she calls upon God’s agents—Israel, Jesus, the Church—to act as God’s agents to “bring light” and to fulfill God’s promise to all the nations. In so doing, she becomes a light-bearer herself.