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Jesus and the Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28)

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He an-swered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

(MATTHEW 15:21-28)

Our Gospel is not an easy one to hear. It might make us feel uncomfortable, when we encounter Jesus and the disciples not immediately welcoming the Canaanite woman, not recognizing her obvious need and doing whatever they can to help her.

The disciples seem to have decided that the woman, a Canaanite, a member of an ethnic group that was seen as the enemy of the Jews, is not worthy of Jesus, so they implore him, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

And Jesus seems ok with this. He appears to want nothing to do with this woman…he is silent towards her pleas, even comparing her to a dog.

Jesus and the disciples hold the power in the narrative. They control whether the Canaanite woman gets what she needs or not. And both have decided that this woman is not deserving.

But how does the woman respond? She doesn’t give up, but she keeps persisting. Although she has no power, relative to Jesus and the disciples, she is not silent, but she speaks and reveals that even though she is not a Jew, she knows who Jesus is. She calls him Lord, Son of David…she also kneels before him demonstrating her respect.

When Jesus tells her that it isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, she intelligently responds, Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table. She shows that she understands what Jesus has said, sees the error in his reasoning, and knows exactly what to say back.

And it is because of what this woman says and does, that Jesus’ mind changes. Jesus turns away from the disciples and their voices, towards the woman, he acknowledges her, he moves from silence and rude words to praises and healing.

Today’s Gospel was written for an early Jewish community who would have expected Jesus to act exactly as he does at the start of the reading…for them, he should have listened to the disciples, he should have cast the woman out. They would have expected nothing from a Canaanite woman, of all people, probably seeing her as stupid and irrelevant.

But Matthew disrupts all of their expectations, when he shows not only that the Canaanite woman knows who Jesus is, will not give up, and is incredibly smart…but also that all of this impacts Jesus and changes how he treats her. Matthew’s Gospel becomes, then, a challenge for his community…calling them to recognize that even those on the outside have value, wisdom, and needs…that they are not to keep Jesus and his message just for themselves, but they must share it with everyone, including those they see as an enemy.

Reading the Gospel through the lens of our own 21st century world, it is clear that so many people at one time or another find themselves placed in the role of the Canaanite woman, judged either by society or religious traditions because of who they are or what has happened in their lives. For example, women have had to fight to be acknowledged and allowed to lead; people of colour are discriminated against because they don’t look like the dominant power holders in western society; the queer community struggles to find acceptance in a world that doesn’t understand them; those who are divorced are judged because they are seen as not upholding the marriage vows; the elderly are thought to have no value and are often ignored; the prisoners are shunned because of misplaced fear, the list goes on and on and on. There are so many, including many, if not all of us, who have had to, at one time or another, keep persisting, pushing through the silence and resistance of others to find love and acceptance.

But it is when we are standing not in the place of the Canaanite woman, but in the place of Jesus and the disciples that the inherent challenge of the Gospel is clear. Because it is often easier to keep the boundaries up, and, like Jesus at the start of the Gospel, to be silent to the cries of those who are different than we are.

But the change in Jesus, from ignoring to praising the woman, illustrates that for us to be Christ followers means that we need to be open to challenge and change too, open to acknowledging the value and wisdom of those placed on the outside. We must be willing to, like Jesus, go against the disciples around us telling us to silence the other, we must demolish the lines that separate us, so that we might share God’s love and grace with all people. We, like Jesus, need to recognize the errors of our assumptions and take the risk to cross boundaries, to listen to and love the other.

And all of this is incredibly hard. Even Jesus must have found it a challenge to go against his ethic hatred of the Canaanites, to go against his disciples, his friends, and to acknowledge and help the woman. But I think when we, like him, take the risk to value everyone, truly loving and accepting each person who walks through the doors of this church or whom we encounter on the street or in the shops, then we will truly be living our Christian faith. And in a world like ours, so full of hatred, anger, violence, and division our call to share the boundless love of God is needed more than ever.

Today’s Gospel is difficult, there is no way to soften what Jesus did and said. But the image of a persistent Canaanite woman who changes Jesus, is meant to challenge us, as it did Matthew’s community. Our Gospel forces us to ask ourselves, whether we are able to take the risk to engage with everyone, no matter how different they are from us. Whether we can go against our world, our tradition, our friends…to listen to the needs of those who are silenced and cast out. If we open our minds and hearts, if we take this risk to listen as Jesus eventually does in the Gospel, then as the Canaanite woman experienced…the healing, love and grace of God will spread, it will flow far and wide, crossing all of the boundaries that separate us.


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