I’ve been looking closely at commentaries about the story of Jesus and the Canaanite in Matthew 15:21-28. This is an absolutely fascinating — and I think very important — story, from Matthew’s Gospel. To re-fresh your memory, here it is:
21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.[a]
I’m trying to do a rather exhaustive search of the commentaries on this passage. One very interesting take comes from Grant R. Osborne (Matthew, 2010), who points out 3 core themes found in this passage (on pp. 594, 595)
- Persistent faith and humility
- Place of Israel and Gentiles in salvation history
- Jesus’ authority over creation
In addition, he notes that Matthew calling the woman a Canaanite and mentioning Tyre and Sidon is meant to “highlight the negative connotations behind the woman’s ethnic origins”. People would expect, Osborne contends, “the rejection of the repugnant unclean Gentile” (597), for she “represents everything reprehensible about Gentiles to Jews” (Osborne, 597-598). This makes me want to read more about what we know about the Jewish treatment not only of Gentiles in general, but also proselytes and “god-fearers”.
Even though Matthew does indeed set the stage this way (to some degree, at least), Nolland (Gospel of Matthew, 2005) points out that “[t]hough occasionally construed so, this is not a story of Jesus reaching out to the marginalized.”
His comments are certainly thought-provoking:
“As with all forms of particularism, the affirmation of Jewish privilege here sits uncomfortably with postmodern sensibilities (or even modern sensibilities!). The woman is not being treated with dignity. We would be deeply offended if a doctor refused to treat a child because the mother was of the wrong race or religion. The biblical tradition, however, while not without sensitivity to such concerns, is committed to a metanarrative that inevitably involves particularity. We do not have to face the full impact of particularity in this story because it has a happy ending. But the initial failure to answer in v. 23 implies that, had the action developed a little differently, there would not have been a happy ending. Important questions of theodicy surface here….
The woman accepts that she has no claim to be put on a par with the Jewish people in benefiting from God’s present intervention for the sake of his people, but even the dog get scraps, and that is all she asks for. This is likely to seem very demeaning to present sensibilities, but not to Matthew and not to the Jewish tradition more broadly. In the biblical materials they saw Gentiles, when beneficiaries of God’s activity, as fringe beneficiaries (footnote: “E.g., Is. 2:2-4; 14:1-2; 45:14; 60:10-14; Je. 16:19; Mi 4:1-4; Zc 2:11; 8:0-23; 14:16-19. There is a wider vision in Is. 19:18-25; 49:6; 56:3-8, etc) Mt. 28:19 breaks through, not the sense of Jewish privilege, but the marginality of Gentile involvement. The existence of such Gentiles as this woman prepares the way, but despite the popularity of the view that this is a story about how Jesus changes his mind, the present episode can in no way be represented as a breakthrough. Jesus does not change his mind at all (vv. 24, 26 are in no way retracted, even by implication); what becomes clear to him is what is appropriate in the case of this particular woman.”
In a footnote, he shares related thoughts:
“G. Jackson, ‘Have Mercy,’ maintains that Matthew’s account is informed by traditions of Gentile women becoming converts to Judaism as proselytes. Though there are some similarities, the case is not strong, and even if such traditions are being echoed, the image of dogs eating the crumbs suggests, contra Jackson, that, despite her very Jewish faith, the Canaanite woman becomes a beneficiary of Jesus’ ministry not as a freshly made Jewess, but as a Gentile (pp. 635-636).
Keep in mind, that at this point, to say this is to say that she was still, to some degree, on the outside. People who would have been ideal believers at this time in Israel’s history were persons like Jesus’ parents, who valued and followed the ceremonial practices of the Jews (circumcision, food laws, sacrifices, Sabbath), even as they also, like the “true Israelite” Nathaniel, recognized Jesus as the Messiah. While Jesus gave very clear hints that the Pharisees had wildly misunderstood the point of the Jewish ceremonial practices (particularly the Sabbath and the food laws), it is not until Acts 15 and Paul’s epistles where we see a more definitive understanding of these practices, that is, as their being shadows that were to fade and disappear (at least insofar as they were in some sense required of believers to perform) once the Messianic Age had been inaugurated.
God willing, more thoughts on this story in the future. Its making me think and pray a lot these days.