Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The Gospel story of the Canaanite woman approaching Jesus in faith to ask for the healing of her daughter is filled with beautiful lessons and profound statements and symbolism. Our modern ears, however, may be taken aback by the language and in that initial shock fail to recognize the full depth of the events recounted. Acknowledging that, it is worthwhile to engage the text and history so that we can fully grasp the import of this text.
First, a look at the immediate context for this encounter is important. The fourteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel recounts the death of John the Baptist, Jesus feeding the crowd of more than five thousand (which we heard two weeks ago), Jesus walking on water (which we heard last week), and the healing of many sick people. The Apostles have witnessed these miracles. In the next chapter, Jesus is confronted by Pharisees and scribes and questioned about observing the law. Our Lord minces no words in calling them hypocrites for their selective observance of laws, while also calling the Apostles to greater faith. After all this, Jesus departs and goes to the district of Tyre and Sidon where He encounters the Canaanite woman. Tyre and Sidon are in modern-day Lebanon, places that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day understood to be pagan lands. The Canaanites, in Biblical parlance, are the people who live in those regions. Historically, the Canaanites were not one, single people or political entity, and they preceded Israel in inhabiting the land. The Jewish people had extensive contact with Canaanites and were familiar with their culture and lived alongside them in many cases, though they belonged to distinct peoples and cultures. It is thought that the influence of Jewish faith and practice was even found in some Canaanite populations who, though not members of the Chosen People, still observed the Law even if not professing the same faith.
The journey of Jesus from his own land to the district of Tyre and Sidon is significant. The Patristic writers of the early Church are in agreement that in this moment, we see Jesus move out from the territory of the Jews, signifying the universality of His mission. He is met by the Canaanite woman, who moves away from and out of the Gentile, pagan territory to meet Him. The Pharisees and scribes rejected Jesus who is sent to the whole world, but to the Jews first. What they reject, the Gentile woman seeks with faith. She professes faith, calling Him “Lord” and “Son of David.” She is asking for healing for her daughter, not for herself. In this act, the Fathers see her interceding on behalf of all her people, that the light of salvation and faith would be given not only in Israel but also to all Gentiles and in all lands. At her first petition, Jesus remains uncharacteristically silent. As we know from even a cursory reading of the Gospels, when people implore Jesus in faith, He responds right away. St. Augustine writes that Jesus remains silent in this case “not that mercy might be denied but that desire might be enkindled; not only that desire might be enkindled, but…that humility might be praised.”
In response to His silence, the woman continues to ask. The Apostles ask Jesus to send her away. Here we find an often overlooked element. The Apostles have just witnessed a series of miracles, and also experienced their own shortcomings in faith (remember Jesus saying to Peter after walking on the water “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?”). They have also just recently heard our Lord’s challenge to the hypocritical Pharisees. Yet here, witnessing a plea made in faith, they fail to see what is really happening. And so we can say that Jesus’ silence is two-fold in purpose: to help the woman make her faith more explicit and to demonstrate to the Apostles their own lack of faith. He points out that the messianic mission is to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. Throughout the Old Testament, the way in which God reveals Himself to the world is through the Chosen People of Israel, and there is an understanding that even those who are not of Israel can come to know God through that nation. Thus, the Messiah must come to Israel in order to be revealed to the Gentile nations. Keep in mind what the Patristic authors say about the Israelites rejecting Jesus and the Canaanite woman accepting Him.
Perhaps the most difficult phrase for our modern ears to hear comes next. Jesus tells her that it “is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Is He calling this woman a dog? Remember that Jesus is free of sin, and thus cannot be accused (as, sadly, even some Catholic commentators do) of racism, sexism, or offensive speech. Rather, remember that Jesus speaks with purpose, and purpose ought not be confused with malice. In using the term, He speaks in words familiar to the Jewish people in reference to their Gentile neighbors, but without the pejorative meaning and intention it normally carried. In response, the Canaanite woman speaks with tremendous humility and her prayer is answered. St. Augustine writes that it is pride that prevents many in Israel from receiving Jesus’ teaching, and not only His teaching, but also His miracles. Thus, the Canaanite woman is able to ask for the scraps, that is, that which Israel has refused. St. John Chrysostom takes up the theme, writing, “See her humility as well as her faith! … Behold the woman’s wisdom! She did not venture so much as to say a word against anyone else. She was not stung to see others praised, nor was she indignant to be reproached. Behold her constancy. When he answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,’ she said, ‘Yes, Lord.’ He called them ‘children,’ but she called them ‘masters.’ He used the name of a dog, but she described the action of a dog. Do you see this woman’s humility?…For this reason she became a child… ‘Be it done for you as you desire.’ This means ‘Your faith, indeed, is able to effect even greater things than these.’ ‘And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.’”
This Gospel is challenging, not least because it requires us to think at a deeper level. This is not a story of Jesus learning to listen to women or learning not to be racist. On the contrary, in this passage Jesus calls the woman to a deeper faith than she already has, highlights her humility, modesty, reverence, and perseverance, and praises her for having such great faith. His Apostles had just been called men “of little faith,” though they were Israelites and witnesses to His miracles and teaching. The Pharisees and scribes have just been called hypocrites because of their pride. In his silence, Jesus calls forth greater faith, in speaking to her, He urges her to persevere in prayer and calls her to humility, and in praising her faith, He grants the request she has made in faith – faith greater than that of the scribes, Pharisees, and even greater than that of the Apostles. We are called to this kind of faith. And to attain that faith, we must persevere in prayer, humble ourselves before the Lord, and recognize that Jesus is not ignoring or insulting us, but calling us ever further and ever closer in our walk with Him.