This is why I love the Bible: it is story. It is one great story after another describing the messiness of our lives and our relationship with God.
When a good story touches our lives and offers us meaning, we ask questions. Indeed, good stories leave us with questions. Why does Scarlet return to the plantation? Why did Elizabeth the First really never marry? Do we have the stamina and emotional strength to live on a raft for 46 days? The questions call us deeper into the story, understanding of our selves and our lives.
Have you ever felt really alone, scared, or both? Have you ever loved someone so much that you dreaded something happening to them? Have you ever watched someone you love suffer? This is how I imagine the Canaanite woman feels. Her daughter suffers from a brutal torment that she cannot heal. I can imagine that she sought every method, every cure, because she was afraid of losing her daughter.
When she approaches Jesus, he ignores her, refuses her and, then, she is reduced to begging. This is why the story of the Canaanite woman is, perhaps, my least favorite Jesus story. This Jesus is the not the compassionate Christ I call Lord. I often wonder if this were the only story we knew about Jesus, what would we think? And, I suppose, the reason I don’t like this story is because it scares me.
The encounter between the Canaanite woman and Jesus holds great potential for interpretation. When we ask questions about the details of this story, our answers guide us towards understanding. Questions like: why does Matthew include this story in his Gospel? What, if anything, does this story have to do with the controversy over purity? Why does Jesus move from Galilee towards the Gentile region? Why does the woman approach Jesus so persistent and aggressively? And why does Jesus refuse her and then seem to change his mind? What if we feel desperate for Jesus’ help and discover only silence or what feels like a refusal to help?
In first century Jerusalem, there were great divisions between Gentiles and Jews. These divisions grew as you moved into the countryside. This is especially true of the areas between Galilee, Tyre and Sidon. One of the prejudices that drove these divisions was based in the “purity laws.” In other words, there are laws in the Torah that strive to ensure the purity of the Israelite community. The root of these laws is the desire for a deep, whole relationship with God, YHWH. By the first century, the Pharisees and scribes had added stringent laws to those in the Torah. Gentiles, of course, did not follow any of these laws and, therefore, were impure. If a Jew even encountered a Gentile on the road, they risked impurity (hence the story of the Good Samaritan). These purity laws promoted more than prejudice. By the first century, Jews and Gentiles were enemies.
Matthew’s Gospel was written sometime around the second century for a Christian Jewish community. This community struggled to discern how The Law, being Jewish, and following Christ intersected. The writer of Matthew has several sources from his Gospel, including Mark. And this story from Mark’s Gospel mirrors directly some of their experience: the encounter between Jewish and Gentile disciples of Jesus. How would Matthew’s community resolve the purity laws and their relationships with Gentiles?
For a moment, imagine that it is first century Jerusalem and you’re Jewish. I know, a bit of stretch, but let’s give it a try. Imagine you’re sitting around a campfire hearing Matthew’s Gospel from beginning to end. There’s not the time, like we have, to examine each story. What you would notice, in the brief time it takes to share this encounter is this: Jesus is moving towards enemy Gentile country. Instinctively, you would agree with his initial refusal. And then, you would be overwhelmed by his actions.
By the time, the storyteller has moved on to the next set of healings, you would be left with this result: Jesus does more than speak with this woman; his compassion is SO great, he is SO moved by her faith, he heals her daughter INSTANTLY.
As a first century Jew, the story would shock you into examining your own prejudice and faith. As modern Christians, the story grabs our attention for different reasons: we wonder why Jesus refuses the woman. We find ourselves so surprised by Jesus’ initial refusal that we wonder about his character. Many Biblical interpreters chalk this up to Jesus’ full humanity, the prejudice he was taught as a child. Others remind us that the Israelites waited for a Messiah to save, first and foremost, their community: to be the next king of Israel.
Personally, Jesus’ refusal to help the woman puts a bit of fear in my faith. There is nothing I have experienced more distressing than to turn to Jesus for help and find only silence. I feel angry, frustrated and it strikes doubt into my heart. When this happens, I have to dig deep to persevere, to find hope, to keep turning to Christ.
The story of the Canaanite woman gives voice to this experience; it wonders about the character of God and our relationship with God. For Matthew’s community, this story is the beginning of healing between Jews and Gentiles. It is a reminder that Gentiles feel suffering as greatly and deeply as Jews.
The story, though, moves beyond this particularity. It is revelation that everyone, no matter their race, has the capacity for intense and deep faith in Christ. It reminds us of the vulnerability of faith; that faith demands our persistence, even when we feel the absence of God.
At the end of the story, the woman has asked for no more than crumbs, the smallest act of God’s mercy. This one request brings the instant healing of her daughter. In the face of this healing, so much is changed. The disciples must confront their prejudice. Jesus embraces his full ministry. The Canaanite woman experiences the mercy of Christ. Ultimately, the story is about transformation: the way our lives are transformed when we live primarily in service to God’s kingdom.
I know that God is working in each one of our lives and the life of our faith community. I do not know the specifics (I wish I did). This is what I know: each one of us is daily being transformed by our relationship with Christ. Perhaps it is as we witness or experience suffering. Perhaps it is as we witness and confront our expectations and prejudices. There are times when God feels very close and other times when God feels silent and unresponsive. The story of Jesus and the Canaanite women urges us to be persistent, to risk putting our faith in Christ, no matter the circumstance. Jesus’ response may not be what we expect but the story does make us a promise. It is the promise that nothing will thwart the wideness of God’s grace and mercy. It is the good news that even crumbs from God’s table are the Bread of Life.