Crossing Boundaries

Rembrandt, Jesus and the Canaanite woman

18th Week in Ordinary Time, Tuesday (Year II)

Matthew 15:21-28

Commentators are at a loss when confronted with the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Step by step in this encounter, Jesus comes across as distant and harsh until the very end when she is praised for her faith. With the absence of nonverbal cues like facial expression and tone of voice, the bare text leaves readers perplexed.

While the Son of God was on earth, “the medium was the message” (Marshall McLuhan). Christ, the Word made flesh, presented the face of God to all he encountered. “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). His aura of wisdom and authority, compassion, and determined efforts to heal the sick even on the Sabbath spoke volumes that the whole world could not contain (John 21:25). 

The apostle John, who left us that snippet of wonderment, realized the challenge of making Jesus of Nazareth known to millions who will never see or hear him. The apostles had only their own eyewitness accounts and written testimonies. Yet Jesus said humankind was better off without his bodily presence because the Advocate would come and teach them from within (John 16:7). The Spirit knows no borders and penetrates hearts even without the use of words. 

Each person may pray the Scriptures and hear the Spirit in a unique way. We also join those who prayed them over the centuries.

At that time Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not say a word in answer to her. 

What were the disciples thinking about as they followed Jesus out of home turf into foreign territory? Didn’t Jesus earlier instruct them to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles…” (Matthew 10:5)? Did they walk in silence or discuss the matter among themselves? Given the cultural context, the disciples probably felt great discomfort entering an “unclean” region among “unclean” people. Jesus knew he was violating his own directive, so why did he lead them there?

Some speculate that he was seeking respite from the crowds; no one would look for him in Greek territory. Others see the verb “withdraw” or “retreat” to mean that he desired to leave the scene of heated conflict with the scribes and Pharisees for a little solitude. According to Mark, Jesus entered a house wishing to be hidden and unknown (7:24). The reasons are unclear, but any desire for anonymity was dashed at the familiar cries of “Son of David!” albeit from a Syrophoenician woman. Matthew’s designation “Canaanite” stressed her pagan, adversarial origin. The bare text does not indicate why Jesus did not immediately answer her. 

His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” 

The first response of Jesus’ followers was “no.” The line between Jew and Gentile was clearly marked.

He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 

Jesus, caught between the segregationist mindset of his retinue on the one hand, and the earnest supplications of the “Canaanite” woman on the other, responded from the perspective of the Jews. The “sent one” (the Christ, Messiah) was the patrimony of the Jews.

But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” 

The disciples may have been impatient at this point. Why was Jesus lingering on with this pagan woman? As if taking their position squarely, as he always knew the thoughts of those around him,

He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

These words seem to have been spoken for the benefit of Jesus’ disciples and the early Jewish Christians who wrestled with the revolutionary change to Gentile relations after Pentecost. “Dogs” was a derogatory term used for the unclean or unworthy. The words and thoughts of old Israel came forth from the mouth of the new in the process of religious transformation.

She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

Jesus’ reputation as a healer of lepers and the demon-possessed (the most shunned in society) seemed to cancel any interpretation of harshness in the Greek woman’s mind. Beneath the surface of words lay a tender, merciful heart, she believed. Given the history of animosity between Israel and Canaan, some effort to win over the Son of David was probably expected. 

Behind her persistence lay an enormous faith in the unseen treasure behind the Hebrew fortress. Though she was an outsider, spiritual intuition led her to believe that Jesus would open the vault for her. She went along with Israel’s insider-outsider motif and declared that the table of plenty could feed even “dogs” (or “puppies”).

Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

From a theological perspective, the person of the Word transcends all cultures and created categories. But the Incarnate Son entered into the slow, plodding stream of history and worked within the chaos of human divisions and delusions. There is no shortcut to the awakening of human consciousness.

With the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, one slash of Adam’s mangled heart was healed. 


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