Read the Gospel here: Mt 15:1, 7, 10-11, 16-28
I know this is a Gospel story – especially that second part – that some have strong feelings about.
Jesus is being pretty snippy, frankly, for somebody who’s up on his high horse about what comes out of your mouth.
Maybe we should just take it as a given that he is exhausted and overwhelmed. If we read what comes before this passage, we find that Jesus keeps trying to get away by himself to rest and pray, and he keeps being found – by crowds of desperate people seeking healing, or by antagonists who want to argue with him.
I’m not going to tell you how I think YOU should read this text – but I am going to suggest how I think MATTHEW, the author of this Gospel, understands what happens here.
Matthew gets this passage from Mark, the earliest of the Gospels. While Matthew and Mark don’t always tell things in the same order, these two pieces are together in both texts – Jesus’ little diatribe about what really makes someone unclean, and then this reluctant healing. But Matthew does tell things a little bit differently. (I encourage you to set them side by side & compare – that’s often pretty interesting! The Mark version is in chapter 7.)
This month we are giving some attention to the ways we read, reflect on, and seek meaning in the Bible. Reading a passage out loud in different ways is a great tool; so is looking at a text side by side with a related passage from elsewhere in the Bible. Sometimes just reading a text closely and slowly makes you notice new things, too, even in a familiar story. We’ve found that with our Scripture reflections at Compline. And with some help from Bible scholar Richard Swanson, it happened for me with this Gospel – with the word Canaanite.
Canaanite. When Mark tells this story, he says the woman is a Gentile – a non-Jew – and a Syro-Phoenecian. A descendant of one of the great empires that marched through Judea in ages past. But Matthew says this woman is a Canaanite.
Canaanite is a very old-fashioned word. The Canaanites were Israel’s great enemies in the time of Joshua and Judges over a thousand years ago. I had never paused on the word before because it’s a Biblical word; it’s familiar. But this is the only time this word is used in the New Testament… and for that matter, the last 2/3 of the Old Testament. The Canaanites mostly aren’t mentioned after the book of Judges – except when people are re-telling Israel’s early history, remembering how God brought them to the land of Canaan and said, This is for you; kill everyone who lives here and then move in and settle down.
Calling this woman a Canaanite is like saying she’s a Redcoat. It’s recognizable as a term for an enemy we used to have – but it’s been a while since those were the bad guys.
Why call this woman a Canaanite? The Canaanites were the peoples who lived in the land where the Israelites wanted to live. (Or – as archaeologists and Biblical scholars increasingly believe – they were the ancestors of the Israelites, whom the Israelites wanted to separate themselves from as they developed a new faith and way of life.) So this woman is a non-Jew who lives in a neighboring territory. Sure, call her a Canaanite. It’s not necessarily wrong; it’s just odd.
Matthew isn’t making a mistake. He means something by using this archaic term. But what?
Matthew is sometimes described as the most Jewish of the Gospels – the most grounded in the history and heritage of Judaism. Matthew believes, with the apostle Paul (Romans 11), that non-Jewish Christians should hold their faith with humility, knowing that they have been grafted onto a vine that was planted long ago; that our life and vitality come from the deep roots and resilient growth of that vine.
Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy that doubles as a capsule history of Israel. He frequently shapes his narrative to present Jesus as a second Moses. In that light, Matthew’s use of the word “Canaanite” means to throw us back into the history of the Jewish people. He wants to evoke the time of Joshua and Judges, when the Canaanites were Israel’s despised neighbors, a constant cultural, religious, and military threat, to be resisted and, when possible, exterminated.
Matthew’s deep commitment to Judaism may seem like it’s in tension with Jesus’ hostility towards the scribes and the Pharisees, Jewish religious scholars, in today’s Gospel.
I’m sure Matthew is re-telling Jesus’ words here – potty humor and all. Jesus clearly had kind of a “frenemy” relationship with the Pharisees during his life.
Matthew’s Gospel may lean into that antagonism because those tensions had become stronger in the decades after Jesus.
Matthew is writing his Gospel, based on Mark and some other texts and memories and stories he’s gathered, around the year 75, give or take.
It’s not long after the destruction of Jerusalem following a failed revolt against Roman colonial rule.
Different Jewish groups are all trying to work out what faithful living looks like in this new time, after all that struggle and loss. The Pharisees are seeking the survival of their way of faith by calling people to daily observance of the ancient ways of Judaism.
In contrast, Christians (at this point still a weird movement within Judaism) are seeking survival of their way of faith by cutting back on required practices, emphasizing heart and soul instead, and becoming a faith that actively evangelizes non-Jews.
So these kinds of questions about what kind of life puts you right with God, and who Jesus’ mission and ministry were for, may have felt even more pressing and weighty as Matthew wrote down his Gospel than they did during Jesus’ life.
I want us to notice that there’s a penny waiting to drop, between the end of Jesus’ diatribe against the Pharisees and the moment of his softening towards the Canaanite woman.
He has just pushed back strongly on the idea that worthiness, holiness, rightness-with-God can be earned or kept through particular practices, things you do.
He’s said, more or less, that his mission is not to restore Judaism as the Pharisees understand it.
But he apparently still thinks his mission is focused on Judaism, on the lost sheep of the house of Israel. On those descendants of Abraham who are hurting, hungry, helpless or hopeless.
I want to take a moment to honor this woman, this fierce mama whose fear for her child makes her fearless. She does something very familiar here – something that women in sexist systems and marginalized folk of all kinds sometimes have to do. She accepts the demeaning terms that are offered her, and makes her case anyway. Jesus says this flat-out racist thing, calls her a dog, and she says, Yes, sir. But you know, the thing about dogs is, when the kids are eating, the dogs are going to end up getting something.
There are many little hints that make me think Matthew thinks Jesus’ heart changes, in this moment. It’s not just that Jesus is swayed by her feistiness and decides to make an exception, just this once. It’s that penny finally drops and the fully-human part of Jesus gets a little bit closer to understanding what the fully-God part of Jesus is up to.
But right now I just want to circle back to that word, Canaanite. Remember that the Canaanites were Israel’s ancient enemy, to avoid and/or destroy. That a touchstone of their history is the story about God bringing them the land of Canaan, and telling them: This is for you; now, kill everyone who already lives here.
Because Matthew calls this woman a Canaanite, suddenly this Gospel story is in conversation with Joshua and Judges. It’s not just that Jesus suddenly sees that his mission is to and for the Gentiles too. It’s that Jesus’ work and teaching, life and death and rising, are meant to mend and redeem a history of hatred, suspicion, and violence.
By the way: Joshua – the great general of the campaign against Canaan – and Jesus are the same name in Hebrew: Yeshua. Matthew knows this.
Richard Swanson writes,”The storyteller is staging a remembrance of the slaughter carried out by Joshua when [the Israelites] invaded the land [of Canaan]. This is not idly done. This remembrance makes this [Gospel story] a scene of historic repentance: the Canaanites are shown to be capable of real faithfulness… The argument for [the] slaughter [of the Canaanites] – that they will lead you away from true faithfulness – is revealed to be false.”
This is a pivot point in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s in chapter 15, close to the halfway point of Matthew’s 28 chapters. In chapter 16, Jesus starts warning his disciples about what’s going to happen to him.* And chapter 17 contains the Transfiguration, the literal mountaintop moment that turns the Gospel story towards the cross.
I think Matthew sees this moment as the fulcrum – the point on which the story pivots. On which Jesus’ understanding of his mission pivots. From seeking and saving the lost sheep of the house of Israel, to breaking down the walls that divide us, making whole what has long been broken. and embracing all those of any nation who seek God’s healing, redemption, and grace.
Thanks be to God.