A Reflection on Matthew 15:21-28 The Canaanite Woman
As always, it is important to look at the context of this story. In Matthew’s gospel, the story follows discussions between Jesus and the Pharisees about the Jewish purity laws, and what makes a person clean or unclean. In the preceding passages, we have the Pharisees challenging Jesus about not keeping the law, (Your disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat!) but Jesus responds by challenging the Pharisees to think more carefully about what makes a person clean or unclean. He argues that it is not so much washing hands that makes a person clean and what goes into a person’s mouth, but rather what are the words that flow from one’s mouth and what are the thoughts that are in our hearts. This is what true purity is, he argues. And it could be seen that the author of Matthew is, in today’s reading, presenting a story to illustrate this very point, because immediately after those discussions the Matthean writer has placed this story about the Canaanite woman. Immediately any Jew of the time would have recognized in the Canaanite woman, a person outside of the Jewish faith and therefore unclean. The Canaanites were understood as the traditional enemies of the Jewish people.
In the story, the woman approaches Jesus, ignoring laws of purity, and asking for mercy. Jesus does not answer. He doesn’t immediately deny her but in fact, says nothing. But the disciples interrupt here, and although the woman has approached Jesus, it is the disciples who want Jesus to send her away. Jesus responds to the disciples, and I wonder if his response is a pause for reflection, he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”. But he does NOT send her away as the disciples had requested. I wonder if the writer of Matthew’s gospel is considering this story in the light of Jesus words about purity. Does he here have Jesus continuing to reflect upon the notion of purity? Here is a woman clearly outside the house of Israel and yet with enough faith to ask Jesus for mercy and enough faith to believe that Jesus can help. She does not undertake the outward rituals of cleanliness, but the thoughts of her heart perhaps do reflect what is truly pure. The woman pushes on (in faith), “Lord, help me”. And then, of course, we have Jesus response- “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
And again, the woman, central figure in this story answers, “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Jesus’ response is immediate. He gets the point. It is an about face. From wondering if he should engage with this woman, who is outside of the house of Israel, Jesus moves swiftly to grant her request. “Woman you have great faith. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed.
We have in this story an example of the openness of Jesus to the other. In Jesus, there is the preparedness to listen to the woman despite the fact that his friends are wanting to send her packing. The story follows Jesus reflecting upon the true nature of holiness in preceding passages and here in the Canaanite woman, realizing that holiness can lie even outside of the house of Israel.
Gail O’Day, Professor of NT and Preaching in the US suggests that the writer of Matthew’s gospel is asking us, like Jesus himself, to listen to the Canaanite woman and be transformed through a faith like hers: persistent, vigorous, and confident in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises.
Are we able to have such openness to the other that we can be changed? In this story today, Jesus found faith not in a pious Jew, but in a Canaanite woman. May we too have an open heart.