The Lessons of the Canaanite Woman

It’s often true that the most difficult readings from Scripture have the most valuable lessons. Sometimes this is because of their subtlety; other times, it is because of the cultural nuances with which we no longer have experience. There are times, too, when the readings are difficult, because they challenge our own, very deeply held biases. Our Gospel reading this weekend is one of the latter.

First, I think it’s important to read Matthew’s account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman with Mark’s account also in mind. While Matthew focuses on the woman’s race, Mark focuses on her social status. In fact, he never refers to her as a Canaanite at all but as a Syrophoenician (Mk 7:24-30). This is important, because together we are given a much better picture of what is really taking place.

First, when Matthew chooses to refer to her as a Canaanite, it can only be perceived as an intentional referral to her as not only an “other” to Jesus and the disciples as Jews, but specifically as one from an enemy people. The terms Canaanite and Canaan, in the Old Testament, referred to all inhabitants of what was afterwards the land of Israel. In Jesus’s time, these would no longer have been used. In contrast, by referring to the woman as a Greek, Mark alludes to her as a religious outsider. Additionally, as a Syrophoenician, she was of a high social rank, likely wealthy and certainly not used to begging to a Jew for help.

You will find many discussions of these readings that point to the woman’s persistence as a sign of her faith. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was steadfast in her faith in Jesus’ power to heal her daughter. Despite Jesus’ initial unresponsiveness to her request, she holds firm. Is this a story of tested faith? Is Jesus trying her in some way? Jesus may even be attempting to teach the disciples yet another lesson. These understandings may not be wrong. I, like many, might be made a lot more comfortable with the story, especially Matthew’s account, if this were true. I’ll be honest, when I first read through this Gospel, I was shocked that Jesus – loving, merciful Jesus – would react to a woman in need in this way. If it’s all just a test of faith, then I can accept it much more easily.

While I don’t disagree with this point, I do see that there is something more when Mark’s version is also considered. The something more is that Jesus is pointing here to the importance of humility. A call to humility makes me feel challenged and a little unsettled. It makes us feel good to think only about how special we are to be followers of Jesus, most particularly when we pay attention only to the softer parts of his ministry: love, mercy, shared intimacy. These parts all make us feel good. And they should. But Jesus reminds us here that that is not the only story. He is as divine as he is human. There’s more to him than we realize, and, just as the disciples often failed to see it, so do we. The Canaanite (Syrophoenician) woman needed to acknowledge her nothingness. When Jesus clearly confirms the elevated status of the Jews (Mt 15:24), and then again when he compares her to the dogs who seek bread from the children’s table (Mt 15:26), her response is one of total and abject humility. Having already ceded his identity as “Lord, Son of David” (Mt 15:22), she accepts his words and continues to believe that he will help her. More importantly, she accepts her need for his help.

The question we must begin to ask ourselves is whether we are willing to accept Jesus’ challenge to let go of what we believe ourselves to be, and allow him to show us who we really are. We are obviously being given the Canaanite woman as an example. I would say that for many of us, it is even more difficult for us to do today, than it was for her in Jesus’ time. We are constantly bombarded by messages of our own specialness. We are increasingly polarized. We surround ourselves, whether intentionally or otherwise, with assurances that the biases and beliefs we hold are absolutely true and correct. We isolate ourselves more and more from the “other,” because it is hard to have to face that we may be wrong.

No one likes to be wrong. But when we lose our humility and forget that we are all nothing without God, it becomes easier to elevate our own lives – our religion, our race, our nationality, our financial well-being – above other lives. Jesus reminds us that no one is anything more than our identity as God’s beloved children; not them and, certainly, not us. When such great violence against “the other,” as we are currently seeing, increases, it becomes more crucial that we approach it from a place of humility. We must speak out against such violations of humanity, but we must do so after first emptying ourselves of pride and self-reliance.

Like the Syrophoenician (Canaanite) woman, we must first accept our own nothingness, especially when reaching out to “the other.” This is a hard message, but Jesus never promised easy.

Lisa Amos

Pastoral Associate


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