A Canaanite woman and Charlottesville, Virginia: a reflection on Matthew 15

I imagine the range of sermons preached this weekend in the U.S. from the Gospel reading assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary will vary widely. A challenging passage at the best of times, given the national mood following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman we find in Matthew 15 feels positively explosive. Why would Jesus say to this desperate foreigner, pleading for the liberation of her demon-oppressed child, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs”? Especially knowing that “dog” is an ethnically-charged epithet used by his fellow countrymen against their gentile neighbours? Is Jesus joining the chorus of “Israel First”? And how do we read this story alongside the stories being told about events in Charlottesville this past weekend?

You can find this story in Matthew 15.21-28, but the RCL gives us the option of beginning at 15.10, which I think is helpful for understanding what follows. It all begins with some Pharisees and their lawyers coming up from the seat of power, Jerusalem, to confront Jesus about his disciples’ lack of respect for what they teach. Specifically, that his disciples do not perform ritual hand cleansing before eating. Now, that’s a long journey to make for what seems like a minor religious faux pas. But what’s at stake here is not hygiene: it’s Jesus’ authority. As a fellow teacher of Torah, the Pharisees are concerned that Jesus’ disciples should be observant in every way, just as theirs are. But his disciples aren’t, and Jesus’ popularity among the disenfranchised multitudes is such that it’s time to bring this rogue teacher to heel, in case this disrespect for the tradition of the Pharisees spreads.

Jesus will have none of it, however. Instead, he bluntly points out their hypocrisy, for teaching in such a way that their tradition, in fact, refutes what Torah itself teaches. Jesus then calls the crowds to himself, to address the issue of eating and what makes someone ritually unclean. And it’s not whether you wash your hands before supper or not. He says, “Listen, and understand. It’s not what you put in your mouth that defiles you: it’s what comes out of your mouth.”

The disciples pull Jesus aside and say, “Uh, you do realize that you offended the Pharisees when you said that, right?” To which Jesus says, “Leave them be – they’re just the blind leading the blind. They’ll all end up in a ditch.” I picture the disciples elbowing each other, whispering, “You ask him.” “No, you ask him.” And as usual it’s Peter who finally blurts out, “We don’t get what you’re saying.” To which Jesus responds, “How can you still not understand this?” And that question, I believe, is the key to understanding the story that follows.

Jesus explains to them that what we eat – what we put in our mouths – ends up in the stomach, and eventually is excreted. It’s a natural process. Duh. But the things that come out of the mouth don’t originate in the stomach, they originate in the heart, and they reveal who we are. And often what they reveal about us is ugly. He lists some of those things and then says, “It’s those things that defile a person – what comes out of our hearts – not whether we put things in our mouth with unwashed hands. Get it?” And again, I picture Jesus looking at each of his disciples and hoping to see some indication that they do, in fact, get it. That they understand what he is continually trying to teach them. The encounter they have with this woman will reveal whether they have or not.

Jesus withdraws, heading north into gentile territory – Tyre and Sidon, on the coast of Syro-Phoenicia. As they’re walking, a Canaanite woman approaches them, and begins to cry out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly, demonically oppressed.” I find it interesting that Matthew identifies her as a Canaanite, and not as, say, a Syro-Phoenician, or a gentile (as Mark does, in his Gospel). I don’t know if being a Canaanite was still even a thing in the first century, but for Matthew’s audience, identifying this woman in that way would tap into a centuries-old narrative of conquest of those who are entirely “other.” People who were to be destroyed, their evil not to be tolerated. People who were utterly irredeemable. Those people.

But this is a new age, a new kingdom: we don’t get to hold onto old animosities and prejudices anymore, right? Jesus has been teaching them about loving your enemies, not judging others, about treating others as you would want to be treated yourself – his summary of the whole of Torah and the Prophets. So, with this gentile woman he has a chance to model for his disciples what he’s always teaching.

But he doesn’t. Matthew tells us, “But Jesus did not say a word in response to her plea.” And as he keeps walking along ignoring her, she keeps calling out, until the disciples apparently feel so uncomfortable with the spectacle she’s making of herself (and them), that they tell Jesus to send her away.

How we read what happens next determines how we see this story unfolding. Matthew tells us that “Jesus answered and said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” “Israel first!” perhaps. But who is he answering? The woman? Or the disciples? Most of the sermons I’ve heard and read indicate that Jesus says this to the woman. After all, she is a gentile – a Canaanite – and so, he can’t help her, even if he wanted to. “Sorry.” Or maybe not sorry.

Except. Except that Jesus has already cast demons out of people just like this woman. And healed them of disease and pain and paralysis. At the very beginning of his public life, when he’s healing people from every kind of illness up in Galilee, people from Syria come down when they hear about it, and he healed them (Matthew 4.24). Maybe even people from this woman’s village. And at least four of the disciples, including Peter, were there when that went down. So, what if Jesus isn’t saying “Israel first!” to this woman: what if he’s saying this to his disciples, to see how they’ll respond? What if he’s waiting for one of them to say, “Uh, Jesus, didn’t you already cast demons out of Syro-Phoenicians before? Didn’t you heal that Roman centurion’s servant down in Capernaum? What about that demon-possessed guy on the other side of the tracks, I mean, lake? Have you changed your mind since then?”

But they don’t. Maybe because when Jesus sent them out preaching a while back he told them not to go to any gentile or Samaritan cities, but to go only to the lost sheep of Israel. So maybe Jesus had forgotten all that when he healed those gentiles before, but is now back with the “Israel First!” program. And so it is then Jesus’ own prejudice that needs to be confronted by this Canaanite woman. I’ve heard people I respect preach that version of events, and perhaps that is what was happening as their walk up the coast was interrupted.

But I’m not convinced it is. When the woman cries out to Jesus, she addresses him in a very specific way: “Lord, Son of David.” An odd thing to find on the lips of a gentile: a title for the long-awaited Jewish messiah, and the very way Matthew identifies Jesus at the beginning of his Gospel. I wonder if Jesus was waiting to see if his disciples would pick up on what she was saying and stop in amazement. Certainly very few of their countrymen had made such a declaration. But they didn’t: instead they told him to send her away. That’s why when Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” I think he’s talking to the disciples, and not her, and waiting for one of them – please God, even just one! – to say, “but she thinks you’re the Messiah – maybe you should help her? Even if she’s not one of us? Like you did before, remember?” But they don’t.

Or maybe Jesus is talking to them all. Addressing the disciples, but in the hearing of this brave woman who refuses to be ignored , and who even now humiliates herself, bowing down before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” In response to which Jesus answers her with that offensive statement, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.” Is Jesus truly employing an ethnic epithet in his response? Is his prejudice coming to the surface? Is the ugliness of his heart coming out of his mouth?

And how does this unnamed gentile woman respond to this demeaning statement? “Sure, Lord, but even the dogs feed on the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” To which Jesus replies, “O woman, your faith is great! What you request has been done.” And somewhere in Syro-Phoenicia, a young girl’s oppression and torment ends immediately.

To me, everything about this story gets to the heart of why Matthew wrote his Gospel: so that his audience would come to the same conclusion as this woman had, that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel, and that the kingdom he brought has room enough for all. An exclusive, “Israel first!” posture could never receive the message that Jesus embodied. And apparently the disciples were still all too slow on the uptake. They failed to understand the parable that Jesus had just told them: it is what is in the heart that defiles us, and causes all manner of evil to come out of our mouths.

Evil such as that found on the lips of the white supremacists in Charlottesville last weekend. “Blood and soil.” “Jews will not replace us.” Racist and homophobic epithets. Evil found in the hearts of many of us perhaps, evil which never quite reaches our lips because we’re too polite, or afraid of what people might think, or because even though we know it’s evil, it still somehow rises in us anyway. The evil of staying silent when hate speech and racist and ethnic epithets are spoken in our presence, and we let them go unchallenged. Perhaps as the disciples did when they heard what Jesus said. Perhaps.

But note this. Jesus praises her faith. He says she has great faith. In fact, in Matthew’s gospel, those who are praised for their faith are not the bible experts or the religious elite: it is those who are marginalized in Israel: a Roman centurion, a woman with a continual haemorrhage, and two blind men. Those critiqued for having little faith? That would be the disciples. What if Jesus wants his disciples to see what he is doing and who he is, just  like these marginalized people do? What if he’s trying to provoke a response from his disciples in this story, and not, in fact, revealing his own prejudice? What if he’s inviting them to say, “Wait a minute. You just said what comes out of our mouths reveals what’s in our hearts. Did you really just call her a dog? After she called you Messiah? What’s up with that?” But they don’t. They’re silent, and just look on at this brief interchange.

(There’s an interesting element to the Greek text of this interchange which (literally) gets lost in translation. The word translated “bowed down” is a form of the verb, proskuneo, while the word translated “dog” is kunapios. Proskuneo carries the literal meaning of, “to kiss, like a dog licks the hand of its master.” Is Matthew inviting his audience to see a witty interchange between this woman and Jesus right in front of his uncomprehending disciples? Perhaps. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into that. It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened.)

As I have read and discussed this story this week in anticipation of gathering with my community this weekend, what rang out loud and clear to me was this: silence in the face of prejudiced speech of any kind is unacceptable. Regardless of whether this woman confronts Jesus’ own prejudices or Jesus is testing his disciples, what is clear to me is this: When I hear people using racist or hate speech of any kind, I must confront and denounce it immediately. Even if it’s someone I know and love dearly. Perhaps especially then. Maybe the disciples didn’t confront Jesus for using such derogatory, exclusionary language because they kind of believed it was OK to do so. Or maybe they didn’t confront him because, well, “he’s Jesus, and so it must be OK?” Silence in the face of hate speech contributes to the violence that all too often follows it. When I hear such speech from now on – whether with my ears, or on my screen – I know I will picture Jesus looking over his shoulder at me and saying, “Well, you got anything to say about that?” And I hope I do.

May it be so.

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One Response to A Canaanite woman and Charlottesville, Virginia: a reflection on Matthew 15

  1. J. Clarkson says:

    Thanks for wrestling with this passage publicly. I’m wrestling with it too. I very much appreciate your highlighting that Jesus does not respond to the woman immediately. What are we to make out of that? What is Jesus thinking about in that space?

    One thing that struck me immediately is that Jesus has chosen to travel to this district. What did he think would happen when he got there? Could he not have anticipated coming into contact with people who were not of Israel? Of course he did. Jesus chose to be proximate to people other than sheep of the house of Israel.

    His use of the term “dog” seems more brutal because of his proximity to the Canaanite woman when he says it. (For what it’s worth, the translators of the Common English Bible argue against an interpretation of “dog” as a racial slur. They opt more for a “pet of the household” interpretation. Still not flattering, but perhaps charged in a different way?)

    Walker Percy describes his main character in The Last Gentleman as being more distinctly southern because he lives in New York City. There’s more room for the character to be southern because he is not in the south. In the same way, maybe there is more potential for Jesus to be more distinctly Israelite in contrast with the people of Syro-Phonecia. Yet despite all attempts to define who he is, even his own, Jesus’s reach is constantly expanded by love. In this case, the woman’s persistent love for her daughter. It’s a long way to Canaan from Bleeker Street.

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