The Canaanite Woman

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This is a complicated Gospel we have here this morning. For starters, it is a little hard for me to imagine Jesus being so rude and angry. This is not my Jesus, my Jesus said “let the little children come to me.” He perpetually had birds on his shoulders and his arms were always outstretched. The Jesus we see in this Gospel from Matthew is rude and unkind. It is pretty shocking really.

A Canaanite woman shouts to him to help her daughter who is tormented by a demon. Jesus and his disciples initially ignore her, but the woman insists and kneels before him asking for mercy. Jesus then says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.” So, He calls her a dog, which was a common Israelite insult to the Canaanites and calling a woman a dog was just as offensive then as it is now.

And yes, the woman was breaking social norms by yelling at Jesus through a crowd. But still, isn’t Jesus characterized by mercy? Isn’t his ministry about mercy for everyone? All I can say is that Jesus was “caught with his compassion down.”[1] I am sure we can all understand that.

And, of course, there was a larger concern at play too. Jesus felt he was called only to the Jewish people initially, but by the end of the Gospel he claims that His message is for “all nations.” We are catching Jesus in the middle of figuring all of this out. Early Christians struggled with this issue too.  So it helps to keep all of this in mind when reading this Gospel. 

Once you have made peace with Jesus’ surprising behavior, we can turn our attention to this Canaanite woman. And isn’t she something? She is socially marginalized. She is a woman. She is a Canaanite. She has a daughter who is possessed by a demon. She violates social norms by shouting at Jesus. She is clearly not someone you would want around a Jewish leader and yet she is the one who delivers the “punch line” in this Gospel. She is one who has something to teach us.

This unnamed woman has great faith. She believes that Jesus can save her daughter and she believes that she is worthy of His mercy. She refused to let her marginalized status keep her away from God’s grace. She had the courage to demand what she thought deserved. As one theologian said,

“The woman, aware of her location and the limitations placed on her, does not succumb to them but brings them into the light and calls them into questions; ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’[2]

Her bravery and faith is powerful. Even when everyone told her she was unworthy, she believed she was worthy. 

This has many applications to our own lives. There are many people in our country and world today who have been told they are “unworthy” and are fighting for their rights. We ourselves might have felt unworthy or been told we are unworthy. Maybe there are people in our lives who are marginalized that we are called to advocate for. The Canaanite woman’s courage should remind all of us that everyone is worthy of God’s mercy. And she should inspire all of us to ask for the same mercy. 

This woman’s vulnerability reminded me of some recent moments with my son James. James is almost four and his brother Charlie is twenty months old. Now I know that many first children have a hard time when their sibling is born. And James has been no exception. He has struggled with the arrival of Charlie and continues to be threatened by Charlie’s milestones like walking and talking. In fact, we began to wonder if he would ever adjust so my husband David and I reached out to a child psychologist to get some support around this.  And this wonderful lady has helped us see all of us in a different way.

One of James’ frequent questions/suggestions has been for me to find Charlie his own mother so that he and James wouldn’t have to share me. I kid you not, this is a real conversation we have. I wish you could see his face when he says it too. It is like he has been thinking it over and he has come up with a perfect solution. And while I find it hilarious/irritating, she said “Oh my goodness, how brave and vulnerable he is.” She asked me if I would be able to bring up my deepest fears and desires with the most important person in my life the way he had. And this reminded me of this Canaanite woman. She brought her deepest desire for mercy to the most important person in her world, Jesus. She knelt before him and begged “Lord, help me.” 

This Canaanite woman should inspire us to ask for the help we need too. Who do you need to say “Help me” to? And who do you need to help? The need for mercy in our world right is far and wide. And no one is beyond that mercy. So today I pray that this Canaanite woman’s plea to Jesus inspires you to think of where your mercy is needed and where you need mercy. Amen.

— Grace Pratt, August 2020

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 3, Page 358.

[2] Karoline M. Lewis, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, August 12, 2008, 18. 


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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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