Last week’s post began discussing the challenges facing using Jesus as a model when adopting the existential approach. Today’s post focuses on the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter.
The gospel of Matthew 15:21-28 recounts the story of the Canaanite woman whose daughter Jesus cured after seemingly making uncomplimentary remarks. In these days, where racial, ethnic, religious, and gender discrimination are topical, it seems that Jesus played some of these cards in the way she treated the Canaanite woman (a gentile).
For ages, the story has perplexed preachers, theologians and bible readers, and no one has provided a satisfactory explanation for this apparent anomaly. Today’s post also does not claim to do so. At best, it provides an explanation best appreciated in the context of Jesus’ humanity.
The first challenge is apparent racism in Christ’s action, as seen in the statement to the woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It is like telling her I cannot help you because you come from this race. One quickly points out that the issue of race is out of the question because the whole area was part of the same race. Moreover, talking about ‘race’ in this period is anachronistic as such discussions never existed.
If Jesus’ attitude was not racist, did it not discriminate against an ethnic group? Isn’t it like saying: ‘I cannot help you because you are from this ethnic group or town?’
The scripture is explicit that God chose the Jews because of his love and grace, not their superiority over others (Deuteronomy 7:6-8). Numerous stories in the Old Testament show that the Israelites suffered each time they abused this privilege or disobeyed God. The coming of Jesus was to bring Jews and Gentiles together as one chosen people and to bring salvation to them. Hence, at Jesus’ presentation in the temple, Simeon affirmed that Jesus is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
Yet, Jesus was also unequivocal and consistent that his mission was, first, to the Jews. That was why he said to the woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
To buttress this, we recall that when Jesus sent his twelve disciples out during his ministry, he said: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6). When Jesus appointed the 70 others, he sent them ahead of him into every town and place where he was about to go (Luke 10:1). The ministry to the Gentiles began after the resurrection when Jesus mandated his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). St. Paul reaffirmed the Jews as the first when he said: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek” (Romans 2:9).
Yet, it does not mean that Jesus did not care about Gentiles nor attended to them when the need arose. There were gentile women among the ancestors of Jesus (Matthew 1:3-7), and the Magi from the East were present at Jesus’ birth (Matt 2:1-12). The gospels record four miracles that Jesus performed outside Jewish territory: the delivering of the two demon-possessed men (Matt 8:28-34), the healing of the Canaanite’s daughter, the feeding of the four thousand, and the healing of the deaf and dumb man (Matt 15: 21-38; Mark 7:24-37).
The second challenge is the seeming misogyny in Jesus’ actions, which contradicts all other gospel narratives where Jesus actively safeguarded, protected, and promoted women’s interest in a deeply patriarchal system. Some instances include: First, Jesus attended to the Samaritan woman at the well, to the surprise of his disciples (John 4:7-29). Second, to the surprise of his Pharisee guest, he allowed a sinful woman to anoint him. He subsequently defended his decision when the host wondered why he did so (Luke 7:36-50). Third, he protected and defended the woman caught in adultery against those who wanted to stone her (John 8:2-11). Fourth, he showed his resurrected body first to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18).
The final and the most difficult challenge is that Jesus used the term ‘dogs’ when speaking to her. First, one must clarify that Jesus never called her a dog but only referred to ‘dogs’ while comparing Jews and Gentiles. The comment about the Canaanites as dogs evokes animosity between the Jews and the Gentiles because the Canaanites and Samaritans (historically Israelites) were long-time enemies of the Jews, and both groups considered themselves superior to each other.
When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, the scripture reads: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” (John 4:9). To spite the Jewish leaders and their rigidity and hypocrisy, Jesus used a Samaritan to demonstrate love of neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37). St. Paul (a Jew) pointed towards this enmity when he wrote: “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (Romans 11:13-14).
Irrespective of the above, why should Jesus even use the term ‘dogs’? Jesus often uses animals as metaphors. In the same passage, Jesus referred to the Jews as the ‘lost sheep’. Exegetical analysis of the Greek words used for ‘dog’ tries to distinguish between a dog, a little dog, or a cared-for-pet. I do not see any advantage in that argument as the term ‘dogs’ was compared to ‘children’. Dogs or little dogs or pets are the same.
In the same vein, there are arguments that the modern derogatory interpretation of calling someone a dog may not have existed in the past. Is this true? God said to the Israelites: “You shall be people consecrated to me, so you shall not eat any meat that is mangled by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs” (Exodus 22:31). This shows that traditionally, dogs have been considered inferior among the Jews. So why would Jesus use the term?
Here, the humanity of Jesus and his teaching principles and intention come to light. First, though Jesus was God, he was human, and though tempted, he did not sin (Heb 4:15). Being a Jew, Jesus obeyed the Jewish laws and understood Jewish social conventions. Just like the Samaritan woman (cited above) asked Jesus why he wanted water from a Samaritan, Jesus acted as a typical Jew in the case of the Canaanite woman. Gentiles do not believe in the power of the God of the Jews, which Jesus represents.
Therefore, Jesus intentionally acted as a Jew who does not want to relate with Gentiles in a bid to enable her to demonstrate her belief in God and faith in the power of God to heal. The great commendation Jesus made clarified his intention for acting in that way.
Why would a loving God delay the woman’s daughter’s healing or ignore the woman? First, Jesus acted this way in other cases. For instance, when the blind Bartimaeus shouted for help, Jesus ignored him at the first calls even as people rebuked the man. However, the man continued to shout louder – persistence in prayer – and Jesus attended to him (Mark 10:46-52).
Healing comes through faith, and Christianity is a choice-based religion. This is why no one becomes a Christian at birth. Jesus wanted to verify that the woman, coming from a non-Jewish territory and not even sharing the Jewish faith, believed. When Bartimaeus said what he wanted, Jesus told him: “Go your way; your faith has made you well. And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way” (Mark 10:52).
As people who exercise authority, how do we treat those in need? As Jesus wanted to verify the woman’s faith, we must be careful because of the many fraudulent people or those pretending to be in need. After ascertaining as Christ did, do we still offer something (material things or words of encouragement) as Jesus did?
How do we treat women in our communities, and what is the fundamental principle influencing our relationship with them? As clerics, do we assume that we are superior to others? Do we discriminate against those who are not from our locality? Let us remember that as those exercising authority in the Church, our duty is to try our best to bring people to Jesus and not to push them away.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾