Putting Her in Her Place
This story about Jesus and the Canaanite Woman is one that really bothers me. It starts
out just like so many other miracle stories in the Gospels, somebody needs help, and comes
to Jesus. Now, ordinarily, we expect Jesus to respond, to demonstrate Gods great
love for us, by healing the person or providing for their needs. Isnt that what he
usually does? But this time, he doesnt. First, he ignores this woman, tells her he
cant help her, then he makes a very denigrating remark about her ethnicity. Is this
the Jesus we know? The One who came to show us Gods love? Whats going on here?
Ive been wrestling with this story, and trying to figure out why Matthew would
tell such a story about Jesus. It certainly doesnt show Jesus in a very positive
light. Yes, the story is there in Mark, (who calls her a Syro-phoenician) and Matthew is
following Mark pretty closely at this point in his Gospel. But Matthew takes the sparse
little story in Mark and expands it. In Mark, the woman comes, Jesus gives her the line
about not feeding the childrens food to the dogs, she answers that even the dogs get
the crumbs from under the table. End of story, move on! Matthew takes this story, makes it
a three-fold denial, adds dialogue, and makes it clear that this is a very significant
I think we need to take a closer look at this text, and see what we can make of it.
First, Jesus withdraws to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Matthew is careful to tell us
hes withdrawing. He wants to get away for a while. Hes just had a heated
argument with the Pharisees over the question of washing hands. What makes a person
unclean? The Pharisees look to the traditions of ritual cleansing and purity. There are
very special rules about all this, and a person has to be very careful to keep them. Jesus
says, no, its simpler than that. Its what comes from the heart that makes a
person unclean. Its the lies, the deceit, the sinful nature. Thats what
defiles a person. In the course of the debate, Jesus seems to be downplaying the
importance of the Pharisees traditions and the Law. They are getting dangerously
angry. Jesus remembers the recent execution of John the Baptist. Hes not ready yet
to take too much heat for this kind of controversy. He has more work to do. His disciples
have certainly demonstrated that they arent ready yet to carry on alone. He wants a
place to get away and let the situation cool down.
On top of that, its been an exhausting time. Since the death of John,
theres been the feeding of the 5,000, walking on the water, healing large crowds. .
. I think hes tired. It would be good to get away for a while and renew his
Tyre and Sidon are outside the bounds of Galilee, on the seacoast. A nice spot for a
vacation, walks on the beach, quiet dinners with just the few disciples coming along. He
would be out of reach of the Jewish authorities, out of Herods territory. Maybe he
hoped he wouldnt be known there. But the minute he arrives . . . Behold! A Canaanite
woman came out and started shouting, Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my
daughter is tormented by a demon! Shes blown his cover, and there goes the
Her calling out to him didnt seem out of the ordinary to me, reading with
twentieth century eyes. But as I began to dig into my resources, I began to learn some
things. Elaine Wainwright points out that this is the very first time in Matthews
Gospel that a woman speaks! This is Chapter 15. And thats not all, she goes on to
say that in all of Matthew, there are only seven verses where a woman speaks, and three of
them are in this story. That makes this story pretty unusual. I think we need to
understand what it means for this woman to call out to Jesus in the public streets of
first century Palestine, apart from destroying his plans for a quiet getaway.
It just wasnt done. First, she was a woman, and women did not address men in
public, and certainly not by shouting out! Secondly, she was a Canaanite, descended form
those people who were already in the land when Moses and the Israelites came marching in
to take it over. These are people the Israelites have had trouble with all through the
Bible. Some of the Bible history even goes so far as to suggest that the biggest reason
that the people of Israel had so much trouble obeying God and keeping the covenant all
started when they failed to completely wipe the Canaanites out. They were pagans. They
were unclean. So this Canaanite woman came to Jesus with two strikes against her: an
unclean woman calling out to him on the street.
Its no wonder that Jesus ignored her. This woman was way out of bounds. According
to Jewish tradition, ignoring her would have been the correct behavior. But she demands
his attention. She will not be ignored. And her call to Jesus is remarkable.
Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! This from a pagan woman. An outsider.
Where did she learn the proper way to address the Jewish Messiah? This is a messianic
title. And these are exactly the same words used by the two blind men who called out to
Jesus and were healed back in chapter nine. How did she hear about Jesus? There were a
number of Jews living in the area of Tyre and Sidon. She must have learned some things
from them. There must have been exciting stories about Jesus told around the village well
as the women gathered there. She must have over heard the Jewish women talking about him,
and maybe even dared to talk with them, ask some questions. She must have heard somewhere
about this great healer, Jesus. How desperate must she have been, a Canaanite, to appeal
to Jesus to heal her poor daughter? She knew she was taking a risk, stepping out of her
place. But she was a mother, and she was willing to do anything, even risk public
humiliation in the street, to get help for her daughter. As a parent, wouldnt you?
Jesus answers her not a word, but she keeps on calling out! Jesus ignores
her, but that doesnt stop her. She follows him and his disciples, and shes
still calling, Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me! Lord, please heal my daughter!
Jesus! Jesus! The disciples dont have as much nerve as Jesus, and they
cant take it anymore. Send her away! they say to Jesus. He must have
turned and looked at her then. He said, I was sent only to the lost sheep of
Israel. He tries to explain to her that she just isnt a candidate for his
help. He came for the Jews. Period.
But this is hard for me to understand, as well. Jesus has already healed Gentiles on at
least two occasions in Matthews story (the centurions servant and the two
Gadarene demoniacs). He has healed other women (the rulers daughter, and the woman
with a hemorrhage, to name two). So what can he mean? Is he testing her? Is he teaching
her a lesson? Or is he truly refusing to help her daughter?
This woman amazes me. She is not discouraged. She is determined to get help for her
daughter, and she is convinced that Jesus is the one with the power to heal her. I imagine
her thinking, Okay. The shouting didnt work. Time for a fresh approach. I
know, beg! Maybe hell feel sorry for me. And so, she breaks into that little
circle of disciples around Jesus, and she prostrates herself at his feet, kneeling low,
looking down at the dirt. Pouring all her pain into her voice, she softly implores,
Lord, help me!
And Jesus looks down at her, kneeling before him in the dirt, and he answers, It
is not fair to take the childrens food and throw it to the dogs.
Ouch! Now why would Jesus say such a thing? Bible scholars have been trying for a long
time now to soften the blow of those words. Maybe hes really joking with her, and
she gets the joke. Maybe hes teaching her a lesson in humility, or testing her
faith. Maybe hes just tired. Or, maybe it really doesnt matter that hes
nasty to her at this point, because he heals her daughter in the end. Now the epithet
Jesus used is apparently a common expression used by the Jews against the Gentiles, kind
of like, Dont cast your pearls before swine. But that doesnt
explain how Jesus could use it. I wonder why?
I think theres more going on here. It think this woman needed to learn a lesson
about her place in the world, and I think Jesus taught it to her. Im taking a class
in marriage counseling, and I was astonished when I looked at this text and realized that
human relations between men and women havent changed all that much in 2,000 years or
so. I learned from Dr. Bill Hiebert that certain ways of relating to another person
usually generate certain responses. I can see it in this story.
Three times in this story the woman asks Jesus for help. The first two times, he
refuses, and the third time he happily agreed to give her what she wanted. What made the
The first time she comes to Jesus, shouting after him, this Canaanite woman is
demanding. Antoinette Clark Wire even classifies this story along with some others, as a
Demand Story, one where a person seeks Jesus out for the purpose of healing.
The Canaanite woman first relates to Jesus with a demanding attitude. Perhaps she
wasnt sure how to approach Jesus, so she put on some false bravado. Maybe demanding
worked for her in other situations. But demanding does not work with Jesus. He responds
with stony silence. Healing cant be demanded. Love cant be demanded. And it
doesnt respond on command. So she tries again.
She relates to Jesus in a different way. She gets down and grovels, puts her face in
the dirt. How does he respond? The way that many of us would if someone laid down in front
of us, and in effect, said, Kick me. He kicked. She plays victim; he plays the
corresponding role, and responds to her subservience with hostility. So she learns, no,
this isnt the way to ask something of Jesus, either.
Then, finally, she discards the patterns she was using. Those old patterns for relating
just didnt work with Jesus. She takes a risk. She responds to him genuinely, and
with real insight. She relates to him, not from a position of power, not from a position
of weakness, but with hope for an honest dialogue, looking for mutual respect. And he
responds to her, Woman great is your faith!
Its as if her were saying, Yes! Now you get it! And he honors her
trust in him by healing her daughter. He has shown her her place. Not over against him,
demanding; not down on the ground, groveling; but beside him, questioning and learning.
She has joined the community of faith by trusting Jesus, coming to him with honesty. That
is the place for this woman. Thats the place for you and me.
I have to admit that my first reaction when I read this story is one of anger. Never
mind that such a reaction would probably never have occurred to a woman in her day, in
that world. But on reflection, Im glad that the woman doesnt respond to
hostility with more hostility. That doesnt solve anything. It just creates a cycle
of anger and hurt, violence and more violence. Its not going to do her any good, and
its not going to heal her daughter. No, this woman is wiser than I. Even after
having that insult thrown at her, she is not daunted. I imagine she gets up, and dusts off
her skirt a bit. And she answers him, not with anger, in a respectful tome, but with
dignity, Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their
masters table. Shes debating with him now, in true rabbinical fashion.
With wit and ingenuity she catches him in his own words. O.K., she says,
if you want to call me a dog, call me a dog, but the dog can be fed without taking
away what belongs to the children.
She is reminding Jesus of the truth that he knows. The gifts of Gods Kingdom are
limitless! There is enough bread for everyone at Gods table. Healing, forgiveness,
peace, joy, love: these arent precious, limited commodities that we need to hoard.
NO! Gods love is boundless, the more we share, the more there is. Isnt this
what Jesus taught us when he multiplied the loaves and the fishes? The bread of Gods
kingdom is an unlimited resource, spread it around! Feed it to the children, the men, the
women, the young, the old! Throw it to the dogs! Throw it in the air to feed the birds!
Give it to everyone!
And Jesus answers her joyfully! Woman, great is your faith. He recognizes her as
a member of Gods family, welcome at Gods table. And her daughter is healed.
Thats why Matthew tells this story. His community is in conflict over the whole
concept of a mission to the Gentiles. How can they take this precious Gospel and give it
to unclean people? Matthew says, Jesus struggled with this, too, and here is the answer.
The gifts of the Kingdom are for all! Spread them around, share the bread! All who come to
Christ with honesty and trust are welcomed at the table!
How do we come to the Holy One? Do we come with lists of requests that we expect to
have answered, as if we were going grocery shopping? I call that the Touched by an
Angel mentality. God is good to us, God forgives us and heals us because that is
Gods job. There arent any demands on us. Were Gods children,
arent we? And we expect to be spoiled rotten.
Or do we come with fear and trepidation? Do we degrade ourselves, and act as though we
were subhuman, and not the human beings God made and pronounced Good? Yes, we are unclean.
Yes, we are separated from God and in need of healing for ourselves and our human family.
But that does not give us an excuse to look on ourselves as worthless. Christ did not come
to live with us and die for us because we are worthless. We are called to be Gods
people, to love and to serve God, but please note that there is a difference between
serving and being servile. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner said something in the Pastoral Care
class that has stuck with me, Sometimes self-sacrifice is necessary, but thats
not possible if you dont have a self to give.
There is another way. We could come in hope and in trust, seeking a relationship where
we can come to Christ with our whole selves, our minds and our hopes, our dreams of
wholeness. Come, let us reason together, says our God. God made us beings with
free minds and free hearts, because God wants to be with us in a relationship of love. Who
knows better than God that love cant be compelled? And so, God made us free, knowing
the risk of sin and brokenness. And when we fell, God came to us in Jesus Christ, who came
to show us our true place as women and men. That place is in mutual fellowship with Christ
and one another, learning and growing together. And together, we will heal our broken
relationships, our broken families, and our broken world.
We come now to Gods table, trusting that God truly wants our whole selves, and
wants to be in dialogue with us. We come as outsiders, grateful to gather up the crumbs
under this table. For that is enough. We know what Christ can do with a few crumbs of
bread. Yet Christ invites us in grace to share this family meal. Christ spreads here the
banquet that feeds our souls, heals our wounds and sets us in our place: with Jesus Christ
in fellowship and love.