Women in the Bible: The Canaanite Woman, Easter 7A 5/28/17

The Story of the Canaanite Woman
Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
May 28, 2017 ~ Seventh Sunday of Easter ~ Ascension ~ Memorial Day
Fourth in the Series Women in the Bible

What do you do when Jesus calls you a bitch?

The unnamed Gentile woman, the “Canaanite,” had a daughter who was being tormented by a demon. As with the other Biblical stories that feature demon-possession, we don’t know the exact nature of her daughter’s illness; what we do know is that no one had been able to help her.

What we also know is that Jews had very little to do with the Gentiles they called “Canaanites.” The term “Canaanite” stirred up memories of ancient foes, the indigenous people living in the land promised to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. There was great animosity and negative cultural stereotyping between the two groups. In fact, Jews often called Canaanites many disparaging names, including “dogs.” And we can safely assume that Canaanites used similar epithets for the Jews.

Moreover, just prior to the passage we heard this morning Jesus sent his disciples out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt. 10:5-6) There is no indication in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus himself has gone out to any Gentile regions before this point.

With such cultural animosity and barriers to interaction between the two groups, it’s unclear as to how this woman had heard of Jesus. Why did she believe that a Jewish itinerant preacher and healer was the one who could help her in her desperate search for healing for her daughter? We don’t know; but believe she did.

It’s a troubling story. This desperate woman – mother, Gentile, outsider – approaches Jesus for help and, as someone once said, he “gets caught with his compassion down.”

He ignores her desperate cry for mercy: Kyrie eleison! As one commentator has said, “[This] prayer rings down through the centuries, chanted in cloisters, whispered in hospitals, screamed out on battlefields. It is the cry of the soul in extremis, a raw witness to the depth and the misery of the human condition.” [1]

That he ignores the frantic pleas of a desperate parent is upsetting, to say the least. Nevertheless (to quote the Senator from Kentucky), she persists. When she refuses to be deterred, Jesus tells her that his mercy and healing are only for the Jews, the “lost sheep of Israel.” That he insists on the restricted nature of his mission is problematic.

And yet still she persists: she falls to her knees before him.

Kneeling is significant in Matthew’s Gospel. Kneeling is a recognition of power. In her commentary on this passage, New Testament professor (Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.) Carla Works says:

[In Matthew’s Gospel] there is a connection between those who kneel before Jesus and the healings that Jesus performs. A leper kneels before Jesus and asks to be made clean (8:2). A ruler kneels and asks for his daughter’s healing (9:18). At the end of this Gospel, when the resurrected Lord appears, the disciples bow before him, and Jesus says that all authority in heaven and earth is his (28:17-18). Bowing in worship also recalls Jesus’ command to worship only the Lord God (4:9). This woman kneels before one whom she recognizes as having authority not only to sit on the throne of David, but to wield power over evil. [2]

His disciples have not as yet recognized Jesus as the one who has the authority to sit on the throne of David and wield power over evil. A leper, a leader in the synagogue, a woman: these are the ones who know Jesus is one with great power – divine power: the power to heal and restore. And so they kneel. His disciples do not.

Moreover, in Matthew’s Gospel kneeling is an action befitting a king. The unrepentant slave bows before the king in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt. 18); the mother of James and John kneels before Jesus as a king who can grant her sons a seat at his right and his left (Mt. 20:20). And, most striking of all, the magi kneel before the baby Jesus and offer him gifts fit for a king: the wise men of the Gentiles are the first to recognize Jesus as the newborn king of the Jews and to kneel before him accordingly.

But even her kneeling is not enough to persuade Jesus to help her. He responds to her humble plea by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (v. 26) That he is calling her a dog is offensive; to hear Jesus – the one who consistently breaks away from cultural expectations – responding negatively, even cruelly, within the norms of his society is disappointing.

Nevertheless, she persists. As she kneels at his feet, the Canaanite woman does something right out of Jesus’ own playbook: she uses his words against him. She doesn’t argue with him, but redirects his words so that they make her own point for her.

She doesn’t fume that he shouldn’t be prioritizing the Jews over her people. She accepts the doctrine of election of Israel – that is, that specifically the Jews are God’s chosen people. Instead, she uses it as the grounds of her own hope: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (v. 27)

The Canaanite woman seems to understand the very nature of Jesus’ God. This God is the one who says in the Book of Exodus, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Exod. 33:19). Or, as Karl Barth put it, she understands that this is the way Jesus’ God has determined to be God – through mercy. [3] While she knows that mercy may begin with Israel, she knows enough of Jesus’ God to know that God’s mercy can’t end there. There is enough to feed the children and still have crumbs to give the dogs. And a crumb from Jesus will be powerful enough to overcome the demon that has possessed her daughter.

And so it is that the revered teacher learns from the outsider. “Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus exclaims. The text isn’t specific: is her recognition of Jesus as Lord the faith he is praising? Is her deep understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy the faith he is extolling? We don’t know, but I suspect it is a bit of both: her faith in his true identity and her faith in God’s mercy and compassion earn her Jesus’ praise. And as he praises her, we see Jesus overcoming his own limited vision. He heals her daughter on the spot, even though her daughter isn’t physically present.

Now we don’t know if this interaction actually prompts a deeper change of heart for Jesus, but we do know this: by the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus will be telling his disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt. 28:19) I like to think that this uppity woman who refused to be silenced had something to do with the expansion of Jesus’ ministry to include even the most outside of outsiders: those who were not the sheep of Israel, but were sheep of other folds.

Here’s another interesting aspect to this story about the Canaanite woman. She is not the only non-Jewish woman in Matthew’s Gospel. If we go back to the very beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew we rediscover that he begins with the genealogy of Jesus, a list of ancestors that goes all the way back in unbroken line to Abraham. Of course, this being a patriarchal society, the male relatives are the important ones. But breaking with tradition quite significantly, Matthew’s genealogy includes four women from the Old Testament: Tamar (1:3), Rahab (1:5), Ruth (1:5), and Bathsheba (1:6). Four women in a genealogy that should list only men would have been astounding to Matthew’s audience.

It may not have caught our twenty-first century attention, but all of this is truly remarkable. Women aren’t given much air-time in the Bible; even when they are, they’re often passive bystanders in their own lives. They rarely have any agency; in fact, they rarely even have their own voices: we hear the actual words of a mere 93 women in the whole of the Bible! (And of those 93, only 49 are named.) And here, in Matthew’s Gospel, we are reminded of four women who acted independently, and sometimes scandalously, at critical junctures in Israel’s history to ensure the continuation of David’s line. [4]

Furthermore, Tamar and Rahab, two of the women ancestors in Jesus’ genealogy, were Canaanite women, not Jews. These foreign women would be called to mind for Matthew’s hearers when he designated the woman in this story as Canaanite.

This month we have heard the voices of four Biblical women, three of whom are named in Matthew’s Gospel: Ruth, Hagar, Tamar, and the Canaanite woman. When we began this series four weeks ago, I said that I hoped that the stories we would hear this month would touch the stories we ourselves are living.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,” James Baldwin said in an interview with Life Magazine in 1963. He goes on: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

And in an essay reflecting on literature and writing, author Cheryl Strayed says:

…in books I have found solace and recognition. I have found expressions of my most private sorrows and revelations of my greatest truths. Through stories and poems and essays and plays, I’ve felt a kinship with others that transcends every divide, across all time and place…Connecting us is the thing writing most powerfully does.

Literature’s grand mission is to tell the complicated truths about what it means to be human, but the most powerful proof that any writer has achieved that lofty goal is in the humble phrase: me too.

Me too: I have suffered.
Me too: I have loved.
Me too: I have experienced joy.
Me too: I know what it is to forgive and struggle and hate and triumph and lose and betray.
Me too: I am just like you, even though we are entirely different.
Me too: In your writing, you spoke my truth.

Sometimes our holy scriptures seem so far removed from our lives, so hard to relate to. But the stories recorded over hundreds of years and preserved for thousands of years are meant to speak to our lives. They are meant to tell us about love, joy, struggle, forgiveness, hope, despair. They are meant to tell us what it means to be human, and what it is to be children of God.

Did these four women give voice to some aspect of your own life in some way?

Did Ruth speak to you of fidelity, of love, of hope that goes beyond all “reasonable” bounds?

Did Hagar speak to you of despair and terrible fear, and of the possibility of new life in an abundance you can’t even imagine?

Did Tamar speak to you of pain, sorrow, isolation, and ultimately survival?

Did the Canaanite woman speak to you of fierce love, trust in God’s mercy, the immeasurable value of persistence, the deep love and welcome God has for all people in spite of our human-made boundaries?

My hope is that in hearing the stories of these four Biblical women this month, we all have been able to find ourselves, our lives, our loves, and our faiths reflected back to us, bringing some measure of clarity to our own lives, our own stories.

I hope we’ll be able to open the pages of our Bible and not just find dusty old rules and regulations, but rather people to whom we can say:

Me too.



[1] Iwan Russell-Jones, “Proper 15: Theological Perspective,” Feasting On the Word, Year A, vol. 3. p. 358.

[2] Carla Works, “Commentary on Matthew 15: [10-20] 21-28.” Workingpreacher.org. 17 August 2014.

[3] see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2 (EdinburghL T & T Clark, 1957), p. 218f.

[4] “Gospel of Matthew,” study note on 1:1-17. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed.

[5] Cheryl Strayed, “The Power of “Me Too”.” OnBeing.org 16 May 2017.

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