I am learning to dig deeply into the places that hurt
The Canaanite woman knows she is not of Jesus’ people and yet she boldly stands before him repeatedly petitioning for his help, mirroring the quintessential form of robust Jewish faith in the Old Testament.
Theological timing is tricky
When read as a whole today’s readings emphasize the inclusion of foreigners in the kingdom of God, all the nations praising Him, and God’s mercy to all. But the passage from Matthew still makes me squirm with discomfort when Jesus likens the Canaanite woman to a dog.
As a graduate student pursuing a degree in theology, I am learning to dig deeply into the places that hurt, into the passages that make me wince, and try to discern and pray through the learning process. Within this passage, multiple references to the Old Testament inform our understanding. Firstly, Matthew uses the distinction of “Canaanite woman” rather than “Syrophoenician.” Mark’s term was accurate for the time the gospels were written; Matthew’s use of Canaanite is more antiquated. The purposeful use of Canaanite not only emphasizes the riddled history between the Israelites and Canaanites, but also reminds the reader of the genealogy in Matthew 1 which includes Tamar, Ruth, and Rahab. The inclusion of these women was surprising in the simple fact that they were women and because they were not Jewish, they were from unclean peoples.
Secondly, this passage defies the constructs of a healing narrative common to Matthew, and instead follows the form of a Psalm of Lament. Healing narratives depict the miracle of healing itself, while this story does include a healing, the focus of the passage centers on the dialogue between the woman and Jesus. In contrast, Psalms of Lament focus on a dialogue between God and his people, with the people making a plea. Scholars note the abrupt change in mood in the lament psalms from petition to praise which occurs when God has heard and answered His people. The Canaanite woman knows she is not of Jesus’ people and yet she boldly stands before him repeatedly petitioning for his help, mirroring the quintessential form of robust Jewish faith in the Old Testament. And like we see in the Psalms, the mood changes and lament and turns to praise. This passage marks the start of Gentile mission while still holding the tension between the Israelites and the Gentiles.
While having this head knowledge does ease my mind, my heart still flinches at the seemingly callous nature that Jesus replies to this woman. Did he change his mind? Am I comfortable with that assertion? If we understand it in the lens of a psalm of lament, there can be shift towards mercy, but is this seen elsewhere in the New Testament?
Yes, it is! Recalling John 2:1-12, I realized that this was not the first time Jesus had rebuked a woman asking for his assistance and then offered mercy. Except the woman in John 2 was his mother at a wedding. Mary quietly accepted Jesus’ statement that his hour had not come and then proceeded to show her faith through instructing the servants to do whatever her son instructed them. Theological timing is tricky, was it Jesus’ time to manifest his glory? Was it time for the mission to the Gentiles to begin? Jesus seems of one opinion at the start of each narrative, but the faith of women moves him to act with mercy and understanding.
While I do not see this passage in Matthew ever becoming a favorite of mine, I do appreciate the opportunity to read about a Gentile woman boldly professing her faith in Jesus.