Among our many woes and challenges today is overcoming deep-engrained prejudices, by which we include some in our community of friends and neighbors, and treat others as alien, dangerous, immoral, irreligious. We need to make distinctions, of course, and we all have family, friends, and neighborhoods small and large, but distinctions can become walls, and we can end up dehumanizing other people, keeping them out of our lives as much as possible.
I mention this, since for this 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 16) our Gospel reading takes us to Matthew 15 (based on Mark 7, with changes) – and to one of the most difficult readings in all of the Gospels:
"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 answered, “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)
Ignore her, send her away, insult her; praise her faith, cure her daughter. What do we make of this unflattering reading with a happy ending? Let’s take it step by step.
First, we can summarize the story as similar to other Gospel encounters: a woman comes to Jesus for help, for her daughter who is possessed by a demon; impressed by the great faith of the woman, Jesus drives out the demon.
Second, however, complications arise immediately. The woman is not a Jew, but a pagan, a Canaanite. This is the only use of “Canaanite” in the New Testament (it's a Syro-Phoenician woman for Mark), so Matthew is making things more difficult on purpose. Canaanites do not share the faith, and right back to Exodus at least, there is enormous tension between the Canaanites and the Jews who claim the land as God’s gift to them. This tough encounter is one step beyond the beautiful story in John 4 where Jesus meets, enters dialogue with a Samaritan woman, and gradually brings her back to life and new faith. Samaritans in their own way share the faith of Abraham and Sarah, from the beginning. Canaanites are alien and unwelcome in a more intense way: they are entirely unlike us.
Third, this unnamed pagan woman turns out to be an exemplar of faith. Though Jesus is passing through or near non-Jewish (“pagan”) territory, she has a primal instinct for him. She immediately seeks him out, as if she has known him all her life. She recognizes that he is a special and powerful person. She bows low before him in deep humility. She worships him — as did those good pagans, the Magi in Matthew 2. And three times, she addresses him by one of the great titles of faith: Lord, Kyrios, (a word that we pray each Mass when we say, “Lord have mercy” [the old Kyrie Eleison]). She even calls him, “Lord, Son of David,” signaling the faith of Israel, though she is not a Jew. Finally, she does not give up, since she knows that Jesus is the One, the one who can save her daughter. She keeps asking, until she is heard. Had she been a Jew or a Christian, she would easily have been a role model for all.
Fourth, a tension basic to the early Church surfaces here: Isn’t Jesus, the Messiah, son of David, for the Jews, God’s beloved chosen people, but for anyone else? Jesus says as much: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The disciples have no time for her, and are typically abrupt and rather heartless: “Send her away – she is making too much noise, crying out on behalf of her daughter.” (Remember how in Matthew 14 they wanted to send away the people without feeding them.) This may reflect a tension in the early Church: we followers of Jesus are Jews, Christ is for us. We are busy enough without worrying about outsiders like you.
Fifth, at first Jesus, though quieter, acts like his disciples. Apparently he does not look at her, and he remains silent when she begs his help: “He did not answer her at all.” Suppose this was the end of it? A pagan lady asks for help, not for herself, but for her child; Jesus does not listen to her; they push her out the door; the demons continue to plague her daughter. How sad a story it would be.
Sixth, it is the hard and difficult exchange at the heart of the passage, one of the most difficult of all Jesus’ encounters in the Gospels, that saves the day. Jesus finally does address her, but in words that shock us:
"It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs."
This is the second time in Matthew that Jesus warns against wasting resources on dogs:
"Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and bite you." (Matthew 7.6)
Some interpreters have seen these words as a bit of ancient repartee or even humor, as if Jesus was bantering with the woman. But we are not told of a smile on his face or a twinkle in his eye, and she is a desperate woman, beside herself in worry over her daughter, and in no mood for joking around. So we need to take the words at face value, as if to say: Why should I waste my healing powers on a Canaanite woman and her daughter? The bread from heaven is for the children alone, not the dogs under the table.
Canaanites are aliens and excluded, but how about Canaanite women? How much does gender matter? Unfortunately, more than we might wish, since the fact that she is a woman seems to accentuate the tension. Jesus has already encountered pagans twice in this Gospel. The Magi in Matthew 2 were exemplary pagans, but male. The centurion in Matthew 8 is a pagan, but male. Jesus is readily impressed by his faith and cures his servant right away. Is it because he is a Roman, or because he is male? Is this scene different because she is a woman? Jesus is usually very attuned to the women in his life — Mary and Martha, the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, the woman who anoints his feet, and of course Mary Magdalene. So why does he treat this Canaanite woman so harshly at first? Think about it.
Seventh, the tension finally breaks and the logjam of prejudice swept away, when the woman responds acutely:
"Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table."
O Lord, Son of David, even on your own premise that Jews are God’s children and Canaanites are like dogs, we should still be able to get the crumbs. Give me just a little of your healing power, a crumb that will drive out the demon. Isn't even a crumb of your power like that mustard seed you praised in Matthew 13, that tiny bit of grace that can move mountains?
Jesus now wakes up. He sees the faith that had been evident all along, and he had so rarely found in the years of his ministry:
"Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!"
It is as if the centuries of prejudice and alienation crumble, as her words make Jesus see that he loses nothing, Israel loses nothing, if they share the wealth of God’s grace with every person of faith. God’s love is not something that runs out. This unnamed woman comes to Jesus; she calls him Lord; she bows down and worships him; she does not give up. How then could Jesus not see her as a person of faith? It is for her too that he has come: God's children get hungry in Canaan too.
So what do we learn from all this? It is an unpleasant scene, but like Mark, Matthew preserves the story rather than dropping it, because it has much to teach us. On one level, this passage is simply a timely reminder to us that we can be (and probably are) prejudiced, likely to build walls, and in a miserly fashion save our gifts for people like us. We stereotype, and we then exclude the outsider, the person in need, the pagan. We may be tempted to see nothing and say nothing when the unwelcome stranger shows up in front of us, begging our help. But the gifts of God are for all, not ours to keep under lock and key: what we have freely received, we must freely share.
On a second level, we seem to be learning here that Jesus himself had to learn, outgrow his own prejudices and his prior understanding of his mission. This is the easiest way to understand the text. Jesus is the Son of God, but that does not mean that he could not ever make a mistake, could not learn, could not correct his own behavior. As his harsh words lead to her humble yet biting reply, Jesus changes his attitude and learns something new, and frees up his divine power in a still more inclusive (God-like) way. If Jesus can learn and then speak and act differently, can we not do the same? Want to be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5.48)? Then let us be willing to change our minds and widen our hearts.