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The Canaanite Woman

Date: 17/08/2014/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Matthew 15:21-28 (NRSV)

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 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.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Mark 7:25-30 (NRSV)

25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

In this short skit, what word descriptions come to your mind about this Gentile, Canaanite, Syrophonecian woman? … Persistent, desperate, pushy.

What words come to your mind about the Jesus portrayed in this story? …. Rude, unkind.

Yes, this woman may have been the most aggressive woman who lived in the 1st century and Jesus is slightly out-of-character in this story.

This story is one of only two or three recorded instances where Jesus was involved with a Gentile. It is a most unusual event given the context of the times – when,
1. A woman never approached a man
2. If a woman approached a man, she was not to look at him nor respond in conversation
3. The woman in this story is a Gentile and should have known to keep away from a Jew

According to the customs, she should have never approached Jesus let alone ask a favour of him. But this woman not only approached Jesus, she spoke out to him, and while asking for his help, cleverly talked back to him! An outrageous act!

We see her as a pushy woman. She doesn’t let custom, expectations, rules stand in her way. In 1st century Middle Eastern culture to do so was to risk your life. Why do you think she took such a risk? Yes, she was desperate to save her daughter. She must have heard of Jesus’ reputation as a healer. She breaks all the rules and puts herself at risk and becomes vulnerable before Jesus.

And what was Jesus’ response? Or should I say lack of response? Of all the responses made to people by Jesus recorded in the gospels, this was certainly the most troubling. In the first instance, it is recorded that he ignored her. Jesus never ignored anyone. “Have mercy on me. My daughter has a demon”. And he ignored her. It is so out of character for Jesus. He is more often accused of associating with all the wrong kinds of people, paying attention to the unimportant people, spending time with the nobodies. But he was never accused of ignoring people. To be ignored means I do not matter, I do not exist, I do not have any value. Was Jesus saying that this woman and her daughter did not matter to him?

Then we see the disciples asking Jesus to send the woman away. She was a nuisance, making too much noise and disturbance. Jesus responds to them saying “I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel”. So what are we to make of his words? Is Jesus suggesting the good news is only for the Jews and not non-Jews? Maybe Jesus was indeed a good Jew, raised to give thanks daily that he was born a Jew, not a Gentile, born a man and not a woman. The human in Jesus could not help but become influenced by the culture and the systems of oppression of his day – Son of God or not. Or was Jesus testing her, as some interpreters suggest. Or was Jesus just fending off his disciples’ request to quickly grant her wish so she could be off – as other interpreters suggest?

But what happens next? She begs for his help. And he responds that it is not right to take the children (of Israel)’s food and throw it to the dogs. Was he further adding salt to the wound by calling the woman and her daughter, dogs? His words were demeaning and uncaring, and most unlike the Jesus we know.

But in the moments afterwards the story turns even more interesting. The woman shoots back at Jesus that even the dogs get the leftovers that fall from the table. But that she in fact is not even asking for leftovers but for the mere crumbs! The small crumbs of food.

You then see that her remark rendered Jesus almost speechless. I don’t think anyone else in the Bible was ever so tough on him. It is more often that Jesus leaves others speechless by his remarks.

And then Jesus says the woman has great faith. He says (or rather Matthew says he says) that her great faith brings healing and her daughter was made well.

Funnily the most debated on this passage is the meaning of the word “dog” or “little dog” as the Greek translation has it, that Jesus uses. To our ears, and to those of old, this sounds unkind and insulting and hence we are not surprised that many commentators have tried to soften Jesus’ insult by suggesting that dog could well mean pet dog or puppy (cute as a puppy), though others argue you don’t throw food at your pet; or it could mean a top dog (which would be a compliment), or a bulldog which shows tenacity (amazing interpretations you find), another said Jesus could have called her a dog with a twinkle in his eye – huh? In a serious situation such as this one? … quite amazing! Anyway, whatever type of dog Jesus meant, it will never be proved and I think best we let this sleeping dog lie!

Other debates surround the purpose of this story. Why would Jesus, the God-man, resist the woman’s request at first, and then give in? Same answer you give to those who ask why pray when God already knows our needs? Because God delights in hearing the voices of his children, God wishes to increase our strength and resilience by teaching us to struggle and plead with him/her. To me, I believe God really doesn’t need to hear our prayers as much as WE need to hear ourselves praying. Anyway, we humans are very clever at providing answers on God’s behalf, aren’t we?

Another commentator says (and I like this interpretation!) – Jesus wants to engage this woman in debate, because he wants to invite her to stand up and be counted. He is treating her as an equal. He gives her a voice!

Well these interpretations and conclusions are all debatable, as is most everything in the Bible. That is why the Bible has endured as such a fascinating book – always alive, always dynamic and no one reads it or interprets it the same way. And what I interpreted when I was 20 could be so different from my interpretations in my 50s. As Heraclitus of Ephesus, Greek philosopher said in the 500s BCE about the ever-changing universe and ever-newer waters that flow – later summed up by Plato in the famous “No man can step into the same river twice”. Which means I am likely not to come to the same text the same way at different stages of my life.

Just look at the narration of this story by Mark and Matthew – both already had different interpretations of it.

Mark wrote his gospel after Jesus’ death (about 60-70 CE) and Matthew about one or two decades (that’s 10-20 years) after Mark (80-90 CE). Both writers received the story of the Syrophoenician woman from someone else, either from the other (in this case Matthew from Mark), from oral tradition, or perhaps an elder who may have known someone close to Jesus, or they maybe all of the above in combination.

If Matthew inherited the story from Mark, as most scholars agree, then Matthew’s additions to Mark’s story should provide interesting study. And in fact we can learn a lot about Mark’s and Matthew’s theology by studying their individual stories. The changes made by Matthew can provide clues for the theological emphases that each stress in their respective gospels.

For example, in Matthew’s version the woman refers to Jesus as the “Son of David” but she does not do so in Mark’s account. We cannot assume that the woman really referred to Jesus by his messianic title just because Matthew says that she does. It may be the case that Matthew’s own theology is imposing itself on the story; that is, Matthew himself preferred that the woman address Jesus by his messianic title because this is how Matthew’s community understood Jesus. So Matthew “tailors his story” for the Jews. If you note also, Mark does not have Jesus say he is sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.

These two versions studied apart show up similarities, differences, and disagreements in the context of each writer’s situation and context. This is what biblical criticism and interpretation is all about. If we do not pay attention to these details, then we can, as many have done, conclude all kinds of meanings.

For example, that the strength of the woman’s faith–mentioned only in Matthew’s version—healed her daughter. In Mark’s account, faith is not mentioned at all, rather it is the cleverness of her “retort” that earns her her daughter’s healing. Faith may or may not have had anything to do with the cure.

There are gazillions of interpretations of biblical texts, as you can imagine, floating around scholarly and academic circles, church bible study groups from BSF to FCC, learned people and the less learned alike – but I want to highlight is that the different interpretations started already with the very Gospel writers themselves!

And for that matter even before Jesus, in the OT times, there was a spiritual practice among Jewish religious scholars and leaders called midrash. Everyone present would reveal a different perspective or meaning of a given text and then by debating and arguing even, God’s deeper, more complex and nuanced wisdom would emerge. Note that the wisdom came from points of conflict and the possibility of multiple truths! It was never assumed that everyone would agree on a single absolute interpretation. Yet look at where we’ve come today – how often we hear “The Bible says … and that settles it”.

This brings us to a very scary thought, dangerous even – is the Bible doomed to have continual multiple meanings, to be manipulated in whatever direction or perspective we, the reader deem interesting or useful for us? Well, think about it – for the past 2014 years it has been so interpreted by imaginative minds who can make texts mean virtually anything they wish! And unfortunately, the Bible has a long history of misuse. The powerful have used it against the weak, the poor, against women and other marginalized people.

Remember that texts are not speakers, they cannot protest and say “that’s not what I meant!” Though of course, readers do protest among themselves. So to what or to whom must we appeal for clarity? The pope? The saints? The religious scholars? The official teachings of the Church? To tradition? The community? This itself is up for debate!! Or we can say, why debate in the first place? How about we just note the different purposes and interests of diverse readers and celebrate the diversity?

But if we are serious about bible study, we acknowledge that our texts do indeed have inherent precious meanings which is why they have been collected to form our sacred text. They have been written intentionally to communicate something to somebody else. So our task as readers is really not to make meaning but to decode plausible meanings from the text. This I learn from Miroslav Volf, professor at Yale Divinity School in his book “Captive to the Word of God”. Volf does not just reflect on the texts, but “explores, probes and gets at the very heart of the more perplexing and real quandaries of the texts for our times, and for how we ought to relate to our surrounding culture”.

And his advice for what authority to appeal to – in addition to the pope, the saints, the scholars, the church, etc, etc he suggests we appeal to the overarching narrative or theme of the Bible – the same theme that gives the Bible its unity. The overarching vision of a life that is lived lovingly (I I add, humbly) before God and joyfully with neighbor.

Well, that makes it easier then! I just need to ask if my interpretation is in line with a God of love, and whether it makes life with my neighbour joyful. Nowhere better laid out than in our FCC Statement of Faith – where we state that the foundation of our Christian life is “living in relationship to God, community and the world through acts of love, mercy and justice in Christ”. And in our communion liturgy – where we admit the world is unjust, where some (of my neighbours) have plenty and most go hungry, some have leisure and most struggle to survive, and that our joy will never be complete till all (my neighbours) find refuge and safety and all share at the table, and no one is denied.

Before I conclude my message, let’s take one last look at this pushy Gentile woman. Don’t we wish that we could sometimes be more like her? She refused to be ignored. She was persistent. She refused to accept NO for an answer. She would make an excellent advocate. Would you be able to think on your feet as quickly she did? Would you be willing to risk ridicule, public condemnation to express your needs, your rights?

On the flip side, this woman also stands for all those who need relief from their misery and oppression, who need God’s love and healing. They are not to be ignored, but acknowledge and helped.

And let’s take a last look at Jesus in this story. How would we respond, when confronted with such a woman? Do we continue to ignore or deny the realities of such persons? Mock them? Brush them aside as dogs?

Or do we, like Jesus, stop, listen and be changed by the power of the truth that they are speaking? When this bold woman rebuts Jesus and his apparent biasness, Jesus listens, and hears. And it is the only time recorded in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind.
“But even the dogs get table scraps,” she replies. She is not even asking for equal rights, but a scrap of some of the rights others have. And Jesus is astounded, as if the scales fall from his eyes as he listens to her and acknowledges the truth of her words. In Mark’s account, Jesus says: “for saying that, you may go, the demon has left your daughter.” Jesus admits defeat as it were, and acknowledges this woman of great faith as an example, his teacher even.

Jesus did what is a difficult thing for many of us to do, especially those of us born into the (unfortunate) privilege of dominance. Jesus listens to the Other and he allows himself to be fundamentally changed. Can we admit to our own prejudices and be changed by those very people we marginalize?

Having followed Jesus this far, perhaps we can learn to listen to those different from us, and to let them maybe change my own reality – who I am and who I will become. When it happens, when we finally have ears to hear, we will never, never be the same. I read recently about someone who asked, if our smartphones are continually updated and upgraded with new software, shouldn’t our brain ware be constantly brought up-to-date too? Or are we to remain stuck with our old models forever?

Many, including men of collar at that, have undergone such changes … in the debate on homosexuality, for instance. Several have recorded their transformations in sermons, books and articles – under titles such as,

“How I Changed My Mind” by the late Methodist Bishop Jack Tuell, an attorney-turned-minister who died at age 90 and changed his mind at age 76;

“A Letter to my Congregation: An evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender into the company of Jesus” a book by Rev Ken Wilson, founder and leader of Vineyard Church in Ann Arbor Michigan. When asked how he changed his mind, he answered “by slowly and carefully studying the Bible, by praying, and by talking with the members and families in my congregation;

“Why I Changed My Mind on Sexuality” by Pastor Danny Cortez who broke away from the Southern Baptist Church to formed a Third Way church called New Heart Community Church in California, when his son came out to him;

“How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking on Homosexuality” by Rev Dave Barnhart ordained United Methodist pastor serving in Birmingham, Alabama in the bible belt of the deep south. His burden of responsibility as a pastor of his flock changed him. And he went back to the scriptures – and read with new eyes;

even Pope Francis said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” during an unexpectedly candid news conference;

and of course closer to home, “My Journey toward Affirming the Gay Community” by my father.

So what takeaways do we learn from this very short story from our lectionary today?

1. To treasure the Bible, our sacred text because it gives us a “frame of reference” for our lives – through stories, images and shared experiences. It is not a Theory of Life, an SOP or an Instruction Manual, for if it were it would be embarrassingly ill-written and unsophisticated. The real wonder is the Bible continues to surprise us each time we come to it.

2. To be like the Canaanite woman – approach God, and the world, with both humility and also boldness, trusting in God’s grace, and despite all possible obstacles of social taboos and boundaries – in her case gender, race, religion, class – that stand in the way.

3. To be like Jesus – be willing to listen to the Other, admit to our own prejudices and perhaps allow ourselves to be fundamentally changed.

Finally, this story prepares us to come to the communion table. We come to the table not as insiders, or outsiders, but as all God’s beloved children. We are getting the bread on top of the table, not crumbs off the floor. When you receive the bread handed to you on a silver platter (bowl), do you know the power of what you hold in your hand? This bread is a gift of grace that says God has not overlooked you. No matter what your gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other human boundary that divides, God still searches your innermost thoughts and loves you.

When we eat this bread we are accepting this gift of God’s love and we believe that it will heal our life just as surely as the Canaanite woman’s daughter was healed.

And if this bread heals your life, who else might it feed? Do we give other people crumbs when we should be inviting them to the same table where we get our spiritual bread and sustenance? This bread of life is not to be jealously guarded or eaten only in times of crisis. God’s banquet table is abundant, and as we always remind everyone, OPEN – open to all – there is enough for you and more than enough left over to invite others.

Come to the table now, receive the bread of life and be reconnected with God.
Receive the cup of suffering and be reconciled and whole with one another.