the growing and developing brain.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
In Mark’s gospel she was a Syro-Phoenician woman. Matthew has changed her into being a Canaanite woman. That shift is significant because the term “Canaanite” carried so much more emotional baggage than did the term Syro-Phoenician.
Canaanites first come into the Jewish story during the time of Joshua, Moses’ immediate successor. He was the military leader who led the Hebrew people into what came to be called “The Conquest of Canaan.” The Canaanites were not respected as worthy friends or foes by the Hebrews. In fact the book of Joshua suggested that the Canaanites were only fit to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water” (Josh 9:24). They were relegated by the Hebrew people to the bottom of the social ladder, well below the Philistines, the Edomites, the Moabites and the Phoenicians. All of these attitudes came into play, causing Matthew to change this woman’s identification from that of Syro-Phoenician, as she was in his source, the gospel of Mark, into being a “Canaanite woman” in Matthew’s text.
With that pejorative definition set in his hearer’s minds, Matthew begins to develop his story. It is one of the most difficult and poignant stories in the entire New Testament. Matthew tells it on one of the Sabbaths between the Celebration of the Harvest and the celebration that comes in the depth of winter that we call Dedication.
This Canaanite woman, says Matthew, had a daughter who was grievously ill. Matthew suggests that her diagnosis was that of being possessed by evil spirits. In biblical times, that could have meant almost any malady from epilepsy to various forms of mental illness. She comes to Jesus carrying this heavy burden in her heart. Her child, the fruit of her body, was distorted and apparently beyond the power of curing. She wants, she needs, she is desperate for help from any source. A mother’s anguish for her child may be among life’s deepest hurts. The cultural stereotype portrayed a Canaanite woman as a person possessing no virtue. Matthew’s portrait of a caring mother, however, challenged that stereotype, setting up an immediate emotional conflict. Human prejudice becomes most cruel and even brutal when the culture parrots and reinforces the distorted stereotypes that individuals carry in their heads.
This woman crosses Jesus’ path as he was journeying in the district of Tyre and Sidon. This was in Gentile territory. She makes it impossible for anyone to ignore her. Addressing him with the messianic title, “Son of David,” she screams “Have mercy on me, my daughter is severely possessed by a demon” (Matt. 15:22). Somehow, even this Canaanite woman with no connections to messianic thinking has come to believe that Jesus could bring her daughter to wholeness. The text, however, does not have Jesus encourage her. Jesus, says Matthew’s gospel, “did not answer her a word” Matt. 15:23). It was a strange, even a rejecting response from Jesus. The disciples noting his response were emboldened in their own prejudice; that is the way it works.
Those who are looked to as leaders can and do, by their attitudes or even by their silence, give their followers permission to be their worst selves. So the disciples say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she is crying after us” (Matt. 15:23). She is a bother we do not need. Jesus appears to respond in kind to his disciples’ negativity, for Matthew records Jesus as saying to the woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). She, it appears, does not qualify for his help for she is an alien and, as such, apparently has no intrinsic worth! The woman, desperate for help is not put off so easily. She hurls herself at Jesus’ feet assuming the position of a beggar, “Lord, help me,” she implores (Matt. 15:25). Apparently still in a mood that is both rejecting and insulting, Jesus responds: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and to throw it to the dogs” (Matt. 15:26)”. One feels pain in the pit of the stomach when this response is heard. We want to return to the text to see if we have read this correctly. Is this really Jesus speaking?
The woman, however, picks up on Jesus’ seemingly insulting language and appears to accept his definition of her, responding: “Yes, Lord, yet the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table” (Matt. 15:27). It was a breathtaking response. Whatever hostility had been there before this moment seems to disappear immediately. Jesus responds, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” Her daughter, says the text, was cured instantly.
Was this simply a strange miracle story? I do not think so. In Matthew’s gospel, it serves as a transitional moment as he turns his story in a new direction. We enter that story looking for clues. First, we note that Matthew has earlier used Gentile women, judged by Jewish society to be sinful and of little worth, to carry his narrative. In the genealogy opening Matthew’s gospel, four rejected and “sinful” Gentile women are included among the ancestral “mothers” of Jesus. One of them was guilty of incest, one of prostitution, one of seduction and one of adultery. That is not insignificant. We looked at these women earlier in this series.
Second, Matthew is clear that this Canaanite woman has no claim on the promises to Israel. That was the common wisdom among the Jews. She lived outside the boundaries in which the Jewish God was believed to operate. So Matthew is allowing Jesus to challenge these Jewish limits. The question Matthew is raising in this episode is: How far will the love of God stretch? How universal is the Christ story? In typical fashion, the disciples want to send her away. That is a familiar tactic that human beings use when dealing with their prejudices.
The disciples had also wanted to send the hungry crowd away before Jesus fed them with loaves and fish. One does not have to deal with human prejudices if one can keep the objects of our prejudices out of sight. That is why we ghettoize Jews and redline blacks in our society. That is why Jews historically were expelled from many European nations. That is why plans were made to send African slaves back to Africa after the Civil War. Out of sight, out of mind! If victims of our prejudice must remain visible, then oppressive laws are always passed that will limit their mobility. They must not be allowed to vote, to gain economic status or political power. Their visibility must be blunted.
Perhaps by making the rhetoric of this story so harsh, Matthew has captured accurately the beliefs the people held. He was allowing Jesus to express the feeling that Canaanites elicited in the minds of the Jews. Security in human beings frequently lies in never having to cross the boundaries that we have erected in our quest for tribal identity. Matthew’s Jesus refused to live within those boundaries. The love of God must be unbounded! So in this episode Matthew once again raises the theme of universalism. In his gospel it is a recurring theme. Matthew announced God’s universal call in his story of Jesus’ birth. His arrival on earth was heralded by a star. A star knows no national boundary. Its light shines for the entire world to see. That star, Matthew said, had the power to draw Gentile magi into the presence of Jesus.
In Matthew’s quest for universality, however, he did not minimize or ignore the role the Jews must play in this drama of salvation. Remember that the wise men ultimately did not find the Christ Child just by following the star; they also had to consult the Hebrew Scriptures. It was the prophet Micah, Matthew said, whose words sent those Gentiles to Bethlehem. Matthew was surely aware that all religious systems draw lines that exclude. The saved, human religions say, must be circumcised or baptized, or be members of the “one true church” or be made to confess Jesus as “my personal savior.” Religious systems always use pious formulas to define who is in and who is out, to make our prejudices look like virtues.
The great battle that Paul fought in the early years of Christianity was about whether the Gentiles could also be included in God’s promises. Matthew will end his gospel by placing a message of universalism into the mouth of the raised Christ calling people into a new community of oneness. “Go into all the world” the Christ will say. Go to those who are the objects of your prejudices. Go to those you have rejected as unclean or unfit and proclaim to them the gospel, which is nothing other than the infinite love of God. The Great Commission was never a command to convert the heathen, as we have tended to hear it over the centuries. It is a call to walk into a barrier-free humanity. The Canaanite Woman is the icon, who stands at the gate through which we must walk to hear this call to universality.
At other times in Christian history, this Canaanite woman is the Jew, whom we Christians ghettoized, violated and, in the Holocaust, sought to eliminate. Later, she becomes the Muslim against whom we Christians unleashed the murderous Crusades. Still later, she is the African whom we Christians enslaved, segregated, lynched, prohibited from voting and suppressed economically. She is the woman who until the 20th century, we Christians did not allow to be professionally educated, to enter the work force, to practice law or medicine, to be ordained, to sit on the Supreme Court or to seek the presidency of our nation.
The Canaanite woman is also the member of the lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual community, each of whom was defined by the Christian Church as deviant, abnormal, sinister, perverted and evil. We can see the Canaanite woman in the faces of all of our victims of prejudice. We have deluded ourselves until we felt quite justified in our rejection. Feeling justified we have said in word and deed that those the Canaanite woman represents are somehow outside the boundaries of God’s love and concern. We have acted as if to be different is to be evil. The Canaanite woman, however, will always confront us until the walls of prejudice fall and we fling open the doors of our hearts to all those we have victimized. When they do, we become whole people. Matthew understands the meaning of this Christ quite well. Would to God the Christian Church could learn it also.
There's so much left to learn.