The Canaanite woman- and who Jesus was really parading
"And Jesus went away from there, and escaped into the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman came out of that region, crying out, 'Oh Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me. My daughter is afflicted with an evil spirit. 23 But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came to him and begged him, saying: Let her go, for she is crying out after us. 24 But he answered and said: I am sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 25 And she came and fell down before him, and said, Lord, help me. 26 But he answered and said, It is not right for a man to take the children's bread, and to cast it to the dogs. 27 And she said, Yea, Lord; but yet the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their masters' table. 28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, Woman, thy faith is great. Let it be done to you as you wish! And her daughter was made well at that very hour." (Matthew 15:21-28)
My dear friends, dear women cherished by Jesus,
degraded. Ignored. Put down. Labeled as scum. Ostracized.
We all want to belong.
It is an inner need of our relational being that we are accepted. Inherent in the very first hours of our lives is the need to be close, to be nurtured, to be protected and to be in community. In Psalm 131 it says:
" Yes, I let my soul be still and quiet; like a little child with its mother, like a little child, so is my soul within me. "
Life - the social interactions, the hierarchies of the world - they often teach us bitterly something other than belonging, being welcome.
What the Canaanite mother in the parable experiences through Jesus is anything but acceptance, is anything but a merciful attention. We stumble, if we do not have completely hardened hearts, immediately over this story. About the way this woman begs not even for herself, but for her daughter. For healing, for salvation, for a crumb from the Lord's table- and over his response.
This woman, she encounters sky-scraping ignorance. "You are nothing!" is the message of ignorance, "not worth wasting even a word on!" She encounters a Jesus who does not turn to look at her, even though she has been running after him shouting for quite a while. She encounters rejection and disdain when he calls her a "dog" synonymous with today's swear word "Nigger", exclusion in favor of the Jewish people.
Has she encountered this devaluation before, more often?
With certainty. With absolute certainty! Probably it is a reaction to her, which she tends to be used to. Already so used to that a thick protective armor has wrapped itself around her, she already skillfully ignores the stings in her heart because part of her identifies with being born on "the wrong side of life."
"That's just the way it is. That's just the way they think of me. That's just who I am. I don't expect anything but to be treated that way."
How painful to hear that from Jesus. How painful to learn that from her Lord, how confronting with her own wounds, with her own previous experiences! She is a woman. She has a daughter, not such a highly respected son,a sick daughter on top. She is a Canaanite, accustomed to be despised for her ethnicity, to be held in low esteem.
Nevertheless, in this case she takes all her courage, this woman, and besides, she behaves completely wrong - socially absolutely indiscussable. She not only addresses Jesus, she calls after him, she makes "a drama", as we would call it today. And he refuses, obviously, to get involved, to be involved with her in the least.
She is not heard, she is not seen. The disciples are so annoyed that they ask Jesus to send away this woman who, in their eyes, has no right to "their Rabbi or, as the case may be, their Messiah."
Why just so much humiliation for this woman?
It is the same Jesus who obviously had the forehead to speak in public at the well of Samaria with a woman who was obviously socially excluded. It is the same Jesus who we experience as compassionate, as reaching out, as uplifting, who does this.
Let's face it, it seems absolutely cruel. And it is, even though Jesus seems to soften at the end. What kind of claim is he making? And to whom? He who is "humble of heart"? Serves from the heart, selflessly and completely devoted, even to death? What is he doing with this woman, and why?
I believe that one of the reasons why this story of salvation is rarely spoken about, rarely preached, is a strange uneasiness that afflicts us. We have two ways of dealing with this contradiction- we can assume that Jesus acts this way, and justify our own harshness. Or...we can assume that Jesus has good reasons that have nothing, but nothing, to do with a lack of appreciation for the woman:
If we include the setting in which this story takes place, we find aspects that are deeply convicting and enlightening. Far too often we ignore that Jesus acts as a human being in a human setting, that he basically has listeners, companions, a crowd around him. Jesus of Nazareth does not walk leisurely down a street without a curious crowd gathering around him. Those who want to learn from him, those who want to have a look at him, and those who want to -salopp said- fry him, accompany him at every turn. And of course those who are his disciples - all Jews, his inner circle. They protect him, shield him, inform him, call him to events- and they sit at his feet. They are the inner community, the "chosen ones", and that they are mighty proud of it, we know. So proud that they argue about who will sit next to Jesus in the place of honor at the end of the day, which of them is the greatest among them in his eyes: John, whom he loves so much? Peter, the ardent admirer? James, who is also always in the party?
And then there is this woman. Somewhere near Tyre and Sidon, a gentile province. Jesus - can communicate, is understood. People have already heard about him, also this woman. And she calls for him like a beggar in the Middle East:
"Have mercy on me!" But the salutation..it indicates an acknowledgement not expected of Canaanites: "Kyrie, Lord, Son of David."
Both designations alone-they also stand for something else. "Of the house of David." Kyrie, Lord, is first of all a general salutation. But in combination, it becomes an acknowledgment of the Jewish Messiah. The Son of God. The "offspring of David", and it reveals that this woman knew exactly whom she was calling, and even more: that she confessed him.
"Have mercy on me" - this mother needs healing as much as her sick daughter. The suffering of a child can wear you out, the suffering of a friend, a wife, a husband. We stand helpless in the face of suffering, illness, death - and are destitute, unable to alleviate it. That does something to us. It takes us away, it robs us of our strength. We suffer with it. We suffer under the burden of inactivity. We suffer under the burden of inactivity, of seeing these struggles, pains and hopelessness.
Jesus does not respond to her.
He subjects her to a public test, not without also targeting his disciples.
A rabbi did not respond to women in public. Socially, Jesus behaved completely correctly, and his disciples will have seen it that way too. The impossible behavior clearly lay with the woman who dared to molest a man in public.
"Then his disciples came to him and besought him, saying: Let her go, for she cries out to us. 24 But he answered and said: I am sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
The disciples urge him to send her away. It is for them the absolutely logical and correct consequence: woman, Canaanite, harassing, behaving presumptuously-she is not of the Jewish people and obviously has no man to send-so, "Let's turn and go on, Jesus!"
Jesus responds in their terms, "I am sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." "I have nothing to do with Canaanite women, woman, this is about the salvation of the Jews!"
The disciples gain land. He is THEIR Messiah, it is THEIR right, not this woman's right, and they are proud of it! Completely impossible if such a woman had the right to have a share in the salvation of the Messiah....
Jesus confronts in this moment two ways: the woman with her fears of rejection, the disciples with their pride, their hard hearts and their claim to be something better, to enjoy a special right. He acts on two levels: He gives the woman the opportunity to prove her faith, which impresses him-as well as the love for her daughter, which drives her to seek his help-under all circumstances, under all conditions, even those of public expected humiliation.
And Jesus truly takes it to the extreme:
His statements become steadily more derogatory, even to the point of public insult. Is it the woman he is shaming? No, it is a counter-reflection of the arrogance he sees in his disciples and in his entourage. They want him to chase her away. So he shows them how they deal with others. From Jesus' mouth doubly harsh, because unexpected. From Jesus' mouth provocative and apt. Can't he stop doing that? Can't he stop treating her this way?
But the woman, she is convinced of Jesus. She believes in him, she does not retreat. She hears what he says, she will be hit, in all those points where she has often been hurt. But her faith in him is stronger. And so she draws him into a humorous play on words, in which she makes "the dogs" into "doggies", into puppies, almost a little mischievously. No, she does not believe Jesus, she does not believe Jesus' rejection. It feels like this. It must have been terrible to have been paraded like that. But she- she knows deep down that Jesus will meet her here, she will not be deterred. She believes in him.
Jesus heals her daughter. He praises her faith, which he tested so badly that it went to the substance.
With this healing he does two more things: he confronts and convicts his disciples of their own prejudices and arrogance. And: He heals the woman on a level that she needs much more than anything else: He lifts her up. He honors her. He, the Messiah, highlights her faith as exemplary, he vindicates her, he takes pity on her. Confronted with all the lies of devaluation about herself, about her people, her justification, this woman with defiant adherence to the truth resists all the attacks, all the old wounds. And finds healing in the arm of the one who loved and valued her from the beginning.
What a story!
How little we see of it?
How little do we hear about such a background?
How great is Jesus?
When you feel marginalized by people, think of the Canaanite woman.
When you go through trials, look at Jesus, and at what you know to be true about him: that he loves. That he is truth. That he is good. Maybe he is teaching people around you a lesson in humility. And ennobles your faith.
Sibylle/Daughter of Zion.
The Bible, Luther Translation.
Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey: Jesus was not a European. Middle Eastern Culture and the Life World of the Gospels, SCM Verlag 2018, pp. 262-267. ( English title: Jesus through middle eastern eyes. Jesus and women.