This story of Jesus’ dealings with the Canaanite woman is one of those that many of us would probably rather not have in our Bible! Jesus just comes across as unfeeling, uncaring, and even rude! So today we are going to do a bit of a Bible study on this story, to get behind what’s going on. And, like all good sermons, we will have three major points!
The First Point – Matthew is known as “the Jewish Gospel.” He wrote it for Christians who had grown up in the Jewish tradition. The vocabulary he uses, the stories he tells, the way he structures his gospel, are all designed to reach an audience which has a strong Jewish background. Matthew’s community is a Jewish Christian one, and so he’s going to make use of Jewish understandings, he’s going to address Jewish concerns, he’s going to use Jewish points of reference in order to get his message across.
That’s the First Point.
The Second Point – A number of years ago, at a National Church Convention in Regina, the delegates were split up into small groups who were sent out into the community to discover what Regina was about. One of the places my group visited was a Synagogue. The woman who was our guide was entirely welcoming, and very informative!
One of the things she talked about was the process a non-Jew has to go through if that one wants to become Jewish. This doesn’t happen a lot; the Jewish tradition doesn’t usually seek out converts. But, like Christianity, they will certainly welcome them! The thing that struck me was that the tradition expects you to say you want to begin the process THREE TIMES before they let you begin the process!
Now, there are different ways of being Jewish, just as there are many ways of being Christian! Different Jewish traditions will enact this in a variety of ways, but, from what she said, this is the basic tradition from which all of them spring.
You go to the Rabbi and say, “I would like to become Jewish.” The Rabbi says, “No.”
You go back a second time and say, “I would like to become Jewish.” The Rabbi says, “No.”
You go back a THIRD time and say, “I would really like to become Jewish!” THEN the Rabbi says, “This it he process you will need to go through.”
This tradition of needing to ask three times, according to the woman in the Regina Synagogue, comes from the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible. I’d like to read part of the first chapter to you.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the … wife was Naomi…. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years, both of the sons also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband.
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughtersin-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’
There’s the first time Ruth says she wants to stay with Naomi.
But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
There’s the second time.
So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’
There’s the third time.
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
Ruth says she will stay with Naomi three times, in SPITE of the fact that Naomi says, “No.” And, finally, after the third time, when Ruth expresses her desire to stay with such wonderfully poetic language, Where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God, THEN Naomi allows Ruth to stay with her. And, in FACT, if you read to the end of the book, Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of David, the King.
That’s the source of the Jewish tradition, and following this tradition is EXACTLY what Jesus is doing with this Canaanite woman in Matthew’s Gospel! Let me read the story again.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’
There’s the first time.
But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’
There’s the second time.
He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’
There’s the third time.
Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
The way Matthew tells this story, Jesus is simply showing his Jewishness! He’s adhering to the tradition of how “outsiders” can come “in.” And this would entirely resonate with the Jewishness of Matthew’s Christians. This is part of their self-understanding of how the universe works, and how things are supposed to happen.
That’s Point Two. Matthew’s Jewish Jesus does things the way they are supposed to be done, according to the Jewish tradition.
The Third Point – Most scholars agree that Mark’s gospel was the first gospel that was written down. Matthew was written some years later, and Matthew almost certainly used Mark as one of his sources.
Mark has this story as part of his gospel, but it’s a very different version! Mark has the woman being of “Syro-phoenician” origin. This is a Greek term, which comes from the time of Alexander the Great, when his armies conquered the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, including what we today call Syria and Israel.
But Matthew changes everything by saying she was a “Canaanite” woman. That’s a term which had not been used in generations, but which very specific meanings for Jewish audiences.
After the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, and after they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, they entered what they called the Promised Land: Canaan, which was occupied by the Canaanites. The Israelites moved in to Canaan and kicked the Canaanites out.
According to some Hebrew biblical writers, the Israelites were told to kill off the inhabitants. In some cases they did; in some they didn’t. The Canaanites who survived, and who lived next to the Israelites, were seen by some as a threat, because they lived different lives, and worshipped other gods, which the Israelites were told strictly to avoid. In many ways, the Israelites failed to do this, and the Canaanites were seen as a dangerous influence on the Israelites for many years.
In a very real sense, the Canaanites were the Israelite’s first enemy; and they were religious as well as political enemies, which made them twice as threatening! They were not only enemies of the people of Israel; they were enemies of Israel’s God. They were outside the pale; the lowest of the low. In some Jewish writings, the worst insult you can make is to call someone “a son of a Canaanite dog!” Which are basically the words Matthew puts in Jesus’ mouth!
The other thing to keep in mind is that, over the years, the Canaanite people had basically ceased to exist! Through centuries of invasion and enculturation, through occupation and religious imperialism of myriad invaders and conquerors, Canaanite civilization had become extinct centuries before Jesus. The word, “Canaanite,” was a word without meaning… except as a reference to the past. And as a warning: You go up against THIS God, and you and your entire people will disappear…; and you will have deserved it!
A Canaanite was a complete waste of a human being, and the Canaanites, as a people, hadn’t been around for centuries! And it is precisely one of these enemies of God and God’s people, one of those who deserves not to exist(!), that Matthew says approached Jesus!
What is Matthew saying here?
That God wants to redeem our past, not just our present?
That God needs to restore our HOLY and even RIGHTEOUS history, and not just our “mistakes”?
That God’s forgiveness even extends to “those people”?
That God’s family is supposed to include even those who oppose God’s family?
That God is out to reconcile ALL people, even God’s first enemies?
That God’s reign is even open to those who no longer exist?
Point One – Matthew is a Jewish Gospel.
Point Two – Jesus is completely Jewish.
Point Three – God’s reign is bigger than ANY of us can imagine. God’s reign includes Jews and Gentiles, males and females, old and young, faithful and unfaithful, friends and enemies, family and stranger, believer and unbeliever, those who exist and those who don’t, in the past, the present AND the future.
In fact (and this is the real point!), God’s reign is SO big, so unimaginably vast, that it EVEN… includes us!