Thought for the day
In today’s Gospel, Jesus changes his mind! How is that possible? Twice in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus limits his ministry to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6; 15:24). In today’s story, however, a very feisty woman, clearly not a daughter of Abraham, with her urgency and her witty retort, brings Jesus to recognise the needs of those beyond the ethnic confines of the Jewish people. They are ordinary human beings too, just as much in need of the Good News of the Kingdom as anyone else.
We believe and we know, O God, that you love the human race, without make any distinction of persons or rank. Inspire us to see you in everyone we meet, for all are your children and you are the father of us all.
Matt 15:21 After going out from there, Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” 23 But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” 24 So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!” 26 “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
This extremely interesting story is found also in Mark 7:24-30, but not in Luke. (Luke may omit it because he writes for a Gentile community and for him openness to the Gentiles is no longer an issue.) Both versions are striking and the differences between them shed a great deal of light on the “project” of each gospel writer. Here’s is Mark’s version:
From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mark 7:24–30)
In Mark, Jesus seems to go alone and for no purpose. He enters a house, apparently because he did not want to be recognised in an area where he has never been. The child is a little daughter. The woman is extremely respectful. Only then are we told she was a Gentile (lit. a Greek), a Syrophoenician. Using a parabolic saying, Jesus implies that his message is for the children and not the outsiders (“dogs”). Her witty response gains her her request—i.e. her faith is implicitly recognised. Jesus exorcises the child and the cure is fully reported in v.30.
Matthew has fundamentally the same story, but with significant adjustments. Jesus goes to Tyre and Sidon, this time with his disciples. He does not go indoors and is not afraid to be recognised. We are told immediately that the woman is a Canaanite. Matthew supplies the woman’s words, which are rich in meaning (“Lord”, “son of David”). Jesus ignores her. The disciples intervene, but only to confirm Jesus’ apparent rebuff. V.24 is special to Matthew. Eventually, the woman changes her tone and posture, begging for help (“Lord”). Jesus’ reply is shorter, perhaps in the light of v. 24. The woman agrees with what Jesus has said and only then goes on, in the same parabolic vein, to make her request. Her faith is explicitly acknowledged and the cure is proclaimed. The confirmation is reported is as few words as possible.
Both accounts are strange. Jesus seems to make this journey for no purpose, has a chance encounter and returns. In Mark, there is indoor / outdoor symbolism, suggesting insiders / outsiders. Matthew makes the purpose and problem very clear in v. 24. In both accounts, a foreign woman causes Jesus to open his preaching to non-Israelites. The story is never resumed again. The comments below will bring out further details.
Kind of writing
There are two stories here and two levels. The motivating story concerns a sick child and mother’s plea. Without this the second story—a theological argument using the significant image of bread, children and dogs—would not exist. The discussion is the point of the story in both versions, perhaps more strongly in Matthew who underplays the cure aspect. As regards the layers, it looks as if historically Jesus had very little contact with Gentiles. The opening of the mission to include the Gentiles—permitted by this story—is to be read at the level of the community at the time of writing.
Old Testament background
In the OT, Elijah cures children and outsiders. The Moses background to Jesus’ ministry has just been underlined in the feeding of the 5,000 (aimed at Jews). The next story following is the feeding of the 4,000 (aimed at Gentiles, with Elijah echoes). The Elijah precedent gives biblical authority to opening the preaching of the Kingdom to Gentiles.
New Testament foreground
(i) This story closely resembles the cure of the centurion’s son in 8:5-13. Matthew’s adjustments to that story portray Jesus discovering faith outside Judaism and responding positively, as here. The purpose of both stories is the same, that is, to permit the post-Resurrection inclusion of the Gentiles.
(ii) V. 24 is found elsewhere in this gospel: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (Matt 10:5-7):
(iii) “Bread” as a metaphor for salvation is found in 14:13-21 and 15:32-39. The kingdom of heaven is portrayed as a banquet.
(iv) In this Gospel, the really insignificant people address Jesus as “Son of David” (two blind men in ch. 9 and two blind men again in ch. 20).
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed– namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness. (Romans 3:21–26 NET)
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. (Rom 10:12)
But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. (Ephesians 2:13–16 NET)
Verse 21 In Matthew, Jesus does not go outside Jewish territory. Probably we should translate, Jesus went towards or in the direction of Tyre and Sidon (a definitely Gentile area).
Verse 22 Again, we should translate, a woman came out from that region, i.e. she left home and entered the land of Israel to meet Jesus. Calling her a Canaanite evokes the ancient, historical enemies of the Israelites. The woman calls Jesus “Lord” no fewer than three times.
Verse 23 This ignoring her (probably a bit of a shock for us) resembles his reaction in Matthew 8:7. Translating that verse as a question makes more sense of the centurion’s reaction in the next verse.
Verse 24 Possibly we are overhearing the tendency of some in the Matthean community to exclude those of Gentile origin.
Verse 25 A plea, simple and full of pathos, resembling many prayers in the Psalms.
Verse 26 Matthew omits the softening in Mark’s “first”, which gave grounds for hope. The parabolic reply is accordingly more absolute and blunt. Bread means salvation, the offer of the Kingdom. Dogs means the Gentiles in a very insulting way.
Verse 27 In Matthew, the woman accepts the priority of the Jews and even the insult of “dogs”.
Verse 28 This is very like the reaction of Jesus in the story of the centurion: When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Matt 8:10). Likewise the closing of the miracle story is dispatched in similar words: “And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.” (Matt 8:13 ).
Pointers for prayer
1. Having met with rejection from the Pharisees Jesus goes towards Gentile territory and encounters faith in an unexpected place, in the Canaanite woman. His mission had previously been to his own people. This adds a new dimension to his mission. Have you had occasions when a chance encounter set your life off in a new direction?
2. The Canaanite woman was not concerned for herself but for her daughter. Recall people you have known who have been committed to a noble cause.
3. The initial reaction of Jesus to the woman was one of rejection but her persistence won a response from him. When have you found that persistence was needed to gain what you sought? What did that experience teach you?
4. Who are the “Canaanite women” who call out for attention today—people in church or state whose needs are not being attended to?
God of the nations, to your table all are invited and in your family no one is a stranger.
Satisfy the hunger of those gathered in this house of prayer, and mercifully extend to all the people on earth the joy of salvation and faith.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.