The Canaanite woman; great is your faith! Matthew 15:21-28

Readings for August 14th.   20th Sunday, including Matthew 15:21-28.

This passage is a brief interlude in chapter 15 that bears some similarity to the story of the Centurion’s son in Matthew 8:5-13. In both situations, Jesus is approached by a gentile and asked to perform a healing miracle.  In the case of the Centurion, Jesus readily accepts the invitation.  In the case of the Canaanite woman, Jesus initially refuses to perform the healing that the Canaanite woman requests.

“Christ and the Canaanite Woman.” Drouais, 1784. Louvre.

Jesus ultimately accepts the petition and performs a healing.  In both cases, not only does a gentile ask for a favor, but the favor is granted without the performance of a ritual, nor even the need to bring the afflicted person before Jesus.  In addition, Matthew portrays Jesus as using a very similar and formulaic response,   Let it be done for you (Mt 15:28, 8:13), when he agrees to perform the two different healings.  He also compliments the faith of the centurion and the Canaanite woman, neither of whom are Jews.

As with any Gospel passage, there’s a wrong way and a right way to interpret the passage.  The wrong way to interpret this passage is to focus on Jesus’ abrupt treatment of the Canaanite woman, as that does not address the theological crux of the story.

I heard a great sermon the other day in which the preacher suggested that this story was about the perseverance of the Canaanite woman.   I did not emphasize that aspect of the story in my post because it is a bit obvious, but then again sometimes we miss the obvious.

What I wanted to point out is that, though Jesus is a bit sarcastic at first, he actually places the Canaanite woman on a pedestal.  In the account of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, Jesus, in rather indirect and round-about fashion, suggests that God’s plan of salvation and message of hope has been extended to everyone.  Scholars tell us that the story of the Canaanite woman (and the other account of the healing of the Centurion’s son) are Matthew’s way of hinting to a Jewish audience that Jesus mission is not exclusively to the Jews.

If you read the story of the Canaanite woman and the Centurion (and the Good Samaritan), you get the impression that there is a certain degree of political awkwardness in suggesting that the Messiah’s ministry is not only directed towards the Jews.  Jesus does not come out and say, during his ministry in Galilee, “my mission extends beyond the Jews.”  Instead, he makes the case implicitly, by using gentiles (the Canaanite, the Centurion, the Samaritan) as examples of faith and charity.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tries to tackle the theological objection that Jews might have in regard to preaching to the Gentiles.  I blogged on this matter months ago, but the famous passage from Matthew 7:6 is instructive:

Do not give to dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you.

In this passage, Jesus was telling a Jewish audience in Galilee what they already knew: that it is wrong to profane the faith.  Now, with the account of the Canaanite woman, Jesus uses this straw-man argument so that the Canaanite woman can knock it down:

Jesus said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.

I think Jesus protests far too loudly when he says, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  Jesus knows better, but he allows the Canaanite woman’s faith to undermine a strict interpretation of that belief.

The second theme that repeats throughout Matthew’s Gospel is that  if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there  (Mt 17:20), while the less persistent individual meets no success.   Thus, when Peter jumps out of the boat and sinks, Jesus rebukes him as ye of little faith (Mt 14:31).  When the disciples misunderstand his preaching, Jesus rebukes them as O men of little faith (Mt 16:8).  Perhaps I belabor the point, but the phrase ye of little faith is used five times in Matthew, and this does not include perhaps another dozen example where Jesus speaks of the faith (or lack thereof) of the disciples and followers.

In Matthew 10:6, Jesus tells the twelve apostles to preach the gospel to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Some scholars have very inaccurately suggested that Matthew’s Gospel insinuates that the Matthean community only understood a “mission to the Jews,” rather than a more universal “mission to the gentiles.” These scholars have wrongly suggested that Matthew did not understand a mission to the gentiles; that this was a later evolution in the Christian mission, introduced by Paul and others.

We know this is not the case because Matthew used gentiles as examples of people of great faith.   Of the very persistent Canaanite woman, Jesus says, O woman, great is your faith! (Mt 15:28).   And of the Roman centurion, no friend of the Israelites, Jesus says Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith  (Mt 8:10).  The Canaanite woman and the centurion are simultaneously gentiles, and perfect examples of what constitutes true faith.

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