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Putting Her in Her Place
Matthew 15:21-28

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 God’s great love for us, by healing the person or providing for their needs. Isn’t that what he usually does? But this time, he doesn’t. First, he ignores this woman, tells her he can’t 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 God’s love? What’s going on here?

I’ve been wrestling with this story, and trying to figure out why Matthew would tell such a story about Jesus. It certainly doesn’t 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 children’s 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 event. Why?

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 he’s withdrawing. He wants to get away for a while. He’s 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, it’s simpler than that. It’s what comes from the heart that makes a person unclean. It’s the lies, the deceit, the sinful nature. That’s 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. He’s 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 aren’t ready yet to carry on alone. He wants a place to get away and let the situation cool down.

On top of that, it’s been an exhausting time. Since the death of John, there’s been the feeding of the 5,000, walking on the water, healing large crowds. . . I think he’s tired. It would be good to get away for a while and renew his energies.

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 Herod’s territory. Maybe he hoped he wouldn’t 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!” She’s blown his cover, and there goes the vacation.

Her calling out to him didn’t 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 Matthew’s Gospel that a woman speaks! This is Chapter 15. And that’s 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 wasn’t 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.

It’s 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, wouldn’t you?

Jesus “answers her not a word”, but she keeps on calling out! Jesus ignores her, but that doesn’t stop her. She follows him and his disciples, and she’s still calling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me! Lord, please heal my daughter! Jesus! Jesus!” The disciples don’t have as much nerve as Jesus, and they can’t 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 isn’t 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 Matthew’s story (the centurion’s servant and the two Gadarene demoniacs). He has healed other women (the ruler’s 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 didn’t work. Time for a fresh approach. I know, beg! Maybe he’ll 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 children’s 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 he’s really joking with her, and she gets the joke. Maybe he’s teaching her a lesson in humility, or testing her faith. Maybe he’s just tired. Or, maybe it really doesn’t matter that he’s 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, “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.” But that doesn’t explain how Jesus could use it. I wonder why?

I think there’s 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. I’m 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 haven’t 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 difference?

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 wasn’t 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 can’t be demanded. Love can’t be demanded. And it doesn’t 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 isn’t the way to ask something of Jesus, either.

Then, finally, she discards the patterns she was using. Those old patterns for relating just didn’t 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!”

It’s 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. That’s 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, I’m glad that the woman doesn’t respond to hostility with more hostility. That doesn’t solve anything. It just creates a cycle of anger and hurt, violence and more violence. It’s not going to do her any good, and it’s 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 master’s table.” She’s 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 God’s Kingdom are limitless! There is enough bread for everyone at God’s table. Healing, forgiveness, peace, joy, love: these aren’t precious, limited commodities that we need to hoard. NO! God’s love is boundless, the more we share, the more there is. Isn’t this what Jesus taught us when he multiplied the loaves and the fishes? The bread of God’s 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 God’s family, welcome at God’s table. And her daughter is healed. That’s 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 God’s job. There aren’t any demands on us. We’re God’s children, aren’t 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 God’s 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 that’s not possible if you don’t 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 can’t 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 God’s 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.