“Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith.”
Today’s gospel reading reveals a woman’s humble yet persistent faith. She is willing to lower herself in worship but unwilling to give up without receiving the Lord’s mercy. The story is notable also for its disturbing portrayal of Jesus—after all, we do not expect our Lord to call someone a dog! Commenters have come up with various explanations for Jesus’ behavior, and I’ll give you my own sense of what Jesus is up to in a bit, but it is important not to lose sight of the passage’s central point, which is this woman’s great faith. This Lent—and always—we are called to emulate her humility and persistence.
Before turning to the passage itself, there are a few aspects of Matthew’s Gospel that will aid our understanding. Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels in language and focus. Its original audience probably consisted primarily of Jewish Christians and perhaps even non-Christian Jews, for whom Matthew highlights the Jewish credentials and orientation of Jesus’ messianic mission. The gospel-writer emphasizes what is sometimes called “the scandal of particularity”—that, while Jesus is the Savior of the world, he did not appear to the whole world at once. Rather, he appeared to God’s chosen people, the Jews, through whom salvation would then pass to the rest of the world.
Let’s turn to the gospel reading. I want to focus on two aspects of the text: first, how Jesus upholds the faith of a Canaanite women as a model for his Jewish, male disciples to emulate; and then, second, the posture of the woman herself: her desperate need, her humble faith, her bold persistence. The gospel reading begins,
“Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts.”
The stories surrounding our text all take place on and around the Sea of Galilee. Tyre and Sidon, by contrast, are quite a ways northwest of there. Geographically, we are far removed from the heart of Jesus’ ministry. The region constitutes something of a borderland, a middle ground between Jews and pagans.
Here a woman comes out to meet Jesus. The Gospel of Mark identifies her as Syrophoenician—Greek. But in Matthew she is anachronistically described as “a woman of Canaan.” This is strange because, by the time of Jesus, Canaan no longer existed. It had not existed for centuries! The only other New Testament references to Canaan come in paraphrases of Old Testament stories. So calling this woman a Canaanite would be something akin to identifying German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a “Visigoth.” It is odd, right? The identification is deliberate and telling. As Matthew’s original Jewish audience would have immediately recognized, Canaanites were the distinctly unchosen peoples whom the Hebrews, God’s elect, had displaced in the Promised Land.
“And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.”
Jesus’ silence strikes us as hard-hearted, and it seems to encourage his disciples’ impatience. Jesus’ disciples do not suffer from an excess of empathy for the weak and downtrodden. In chapter 20, they are part of a crowd shooing away blind men crying out for mercy. In chapter 19, they are sternly admonishing those who brought children to Jesus. And in Matthew 14—shortly before our story—they ask Jesus to send the hungry crowds away to go “buy food for themselves” (v. 15). Now, a brief chapter later, they are asking Jesus to send a presumptuous foreigner away.
“But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Jesus is apparently responding to his disciples, but the thrust of his statement is a rejection of the woman’s request—indeed, he seems to be rejecting her petition without even acknowledging her presence! Yet the woman is undeterred:
“Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.”
In attempting to mitigate the harshness of the saying, commenters note that Jesus was following a common Jewish practice of referring to Gentiles as dogs. Jesus was not inventing his own personalized insult but rather trafficking in a well-worn ethnic slur. Moreover, Jesus uses the diminutive form of dogs—little dogs, puppies. The context implies household pets rather than strays. This does soften the statement somewhat… but, let’s be honest, not all that much! (Jesus thinks you’re a dog, not a child—but, hey, at least you’re housebroken!)
The disciples’ reaction is not recorded, but given their general lack of empathy and the cultural climate of the day, I imagine them nodding along in self-satisfaction.
But then, suddenly and dramatically, Jesus reverses course, crying out, “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”
Recall that, in the story of walking on water a chapter earlier, Jesus addressed Peter with the unflattering sobriquet, “O thou of little faith.” No doubt this statement was ringing in Peter’s ears as he heard Jesus uphold the great faith of this woman, this Canaanite dog. Perhaps Peter also recalled that the last time Jesus identified great faith, it was that of a Roman centurion: “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matthew 8).
What, then, are we to make of Jesus in this story? I believe Jesus is enacting a real-life parable. Parables always illustrate something surprising about the kingdom of heaven. Often, parables seem at first to reinforce the hearers’ understanding of the world but then unexpectedly upend those very presuppositions. Consider the parable of the prodigal son. For most of the story, it seems to be about the consequences of selfishness and debauchery—the kind of morality play his audience of scribes and Pharisees would have firmly endorsed—but then, right at the end, it turns into a story about a father’s inordinate love, his unwarranted, even unseemly, forgiveness for an undeserving child. The parable of the prodigal son turns out to be an indictment of the Pharisees for their lack of mercy.
In our story, Jesus initially reinforces his disciples’ sense of superiority but then upends their self-satisfaction dramatically, placing before them a Canaanite woman of all people as a model of great faith. The lesson may have been equally unsettling to the Jewish audience of Matthew’s Gospel: just as the Pharisees’ scrupulous observance of the law was worthless because of hardness of heart—a point Jesus makes abundantly clear in the passage immediately preceding our text—so too the disciples’ confidence in their ethnic superiority over this foreigner was misplaced.
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Let’s take a closer look at the faithful posture of this foreign woman. The text says that she “came out” of the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, suggesting that she has journeyed to find Jesus. Mark’s Gospel explicitly clarifies that her daughter remained at home. If you can picture the scene: she is alone amidst a gaggle of foreign men. Probably she is dusty and bedraggled from travel, a Gentile dog crying out for aid from a man she identifies in explicitly Jewish terms: “O Lord, thou Son of David!” No wonder the disciples find her a bit pathetic.
Yet her vulnerability does not stop her for a moment, driven as she is by love for her daughter and drawn by faith to Jesus. She is clearly a desperate woman. Pathetic and desperate: not the sorts of adjectives we would be inclined to apply to ourselves. To the contrary, we are competent. Educated. Refined in our judgment, discriminating in our tastes. All of this is good. None of it is bad—unless it prevents us from seeing that, like the Canaanite woman, we too desperately need Jesus. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23b, NRSV). If our wealth, our stability, and our competence prevent us from seeing our need for Jesus—then in that case it is bad. It is damnably bad. If self-satisfaction and complacency are your illness, let this Lent be your medicine.
We do not know how or precisely what the Canaanite woman knows of Jesus besides the messianic title, but we do know that she is undeterred when the Messiah dismisses her right to healing and even refers to her as a Gentile dog. She does not dispute Jesus’ characterization of her. She does not assert that she has just as much a right to his respect as any Jew. She willingly humbles herself in worshipping and petitioning Jesus. That humility is, as the Apostle Paul indicates in Philippians 2, a necessary aspect of the Christian life, because it was a central theme in the life of Jesus Christ, who “took upon him the form of a servant, and… humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.”
In the examples of Jesus and of the Canaanite woman we find a great paradox of Christian life: our lives must be marked by lowly humility yet will culminate in a revelation of resurrected glory. The Canaanite woman’s astonishing blend of humility, desperate need, and perseverance is something for each of us to emulate this Lent. Her persistence echoes the demand of Jacob when he wrestles with God: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (Gen. 32:36). Like her and like Jacob, we must cling to the promises of God—even in periods of aridity, when we seem to be wrestling rather than communing with God, where our experience of him seems marked more by stony silence or indifference than warm welcome. It is when we persist in seeking God’s mercy that we will receive his grace.
This is why, just before we partake of the Eucharist each week, we kneel before the altar and reenact the plea of a Canaanite woman:
“WE do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”