The Canaanite Woman and Jesus the Sage




Vincent Dávila, OP

Biblical Interpretation

April 18, 2012

Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s Gospel presents the modern reader with a troubling account, for in it Jesus acts in a way disparate from his usual self. When the Canaanite woman first calls out to him, begging for a healing for her daughter and recognizing him as Lord, he simply ignores her; when she persists, the disciples approach Jesus about her, and he responds that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” seemingly a blatant rejection of the Gentiles (Matthew 15:24). Yet she continues, and thus Jesus is brought to pronounce what seem offensive, even bigoted remarks: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (Mt 15:26).But then, departing from the model, when she again persists in begging for the healing, Jesus acclaims her faith and grants her wish. What can account for such a radical change in Jesus’ response, from silence and insult to praise and healing? Perhaps more significantly, how can the image of a Jesus who makes such insulting remarks be reconciled with a loving Jesus who excludes no one from his care? While many modern scholars answer these difficult questions by seeing this moment as one of change and learning for Jesus, their approaches are problematic; yet the difficulties can be solved by seeing this as a teaching moment for Jesus the sage.

Yet before addressing the approaches of various scholars, it is necessary to recognizethe temptationto simply ignore this pericope altogether, failing to include it in one’s personal image of Jesus. This is problematic on several accounts: firstly, because it gives primacy to the Jesus of one’s imagination rather than the Jesus of the Scriptures; but also because the Gospel writer simply will not allow it. Following the generally accepted source theory for Matthew’s Gospel, this Gospel is derived at least in part from Mark’s Gospel.[1]Thus, a similar version of this pericope is found in Mark 7:24-30. It stands to reason that if Matthew found this pericope troubling and unrepresentative of who Jesus was, he would not have included it in his own Gospel account—yet in fact, he not only included the pericope, but heightened or aggravated many of the most difficult elements. Matthew replaces “the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth” (Mk 7:26), by referring to her as “a Canaanite woman” (Mt 15:22). This “implies that she is unclean and pagan…[and] evokes an adversarial relationship, dating from the divinely-sanctioned conquest of the Canaanites’ land by the Israelites.”[2]Matthew makes other changes as well; as Donald Senior adds, “[t]he evangelist’s changes in the story of the Canaanite woman intensify the issue by having the woman and Jesus directly confront each other, not twice but three times, and by having Jesus explicitly reaffirm that his mission is only to Israel.”[3]

Other Biblical scholars, accepting the significance of this pericope in a right understanding of Matthew’s Jesus, offer altogether problematic interpretations. While placing the Canaanite woman at the center of the story is not per seproblematic, some of these scholars go a step further in making this woman the teacher and Jesus the student. Thus, DanielPatte will insist that “contrary to our understanding that Jesus’ role is to teach to disciples God’s righteousness/justice, out of the wisdom of her own culture the Canaanite woman teaches overabundant righteousness/justice to Jesus.”[4] Similarly, Daniel Schipani states that “the Canaanite woman became a prophetic and wise teacher.”[5]This teaching is, for Schipani, ultimately a form of ministry, such that rather than Jesus ministering to the needs of this woman, it is indeed the Canaanite who, “in the process of her encounter with Jesus …, ministered to him.”[6]

Such claims do not seem to square with the Matthean Jesus, nor indeed with the immediate context of this pericope. For Matthew, Jesus is the “teacher” (Mt 19:16), who a few chapters earlier—in the Sermon on the Mount—left the crowds “astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt 7:28-29).Even the immediate context does not admit this model of Jesus; he has just come from a confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes in Jerusalem, the teachers of the Jews, in which he has questioned their authority, calling them “hypocrites” and quoting Isaiah’s prophecy that they worship God in vain, “‘teaching as doctrines human precepts’” (Mt 15:7, 9). Jesus has just finished teaching both the Jewish authorities and the crowd regarding true cleanliness, for “it is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person, but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one” (Mt 15:11).How strange it would be for Matthewto insist on the greatness of Jesus’ teaching authority (as even teaching scribes and Pharisees), and immediately thereafter show him as a student needing instruction—would not this undermine the teaching authority of his previous remarks? And if, as Schipani proposes, the Canaanite woman can offer Jesus, whose teaching comes from above, a lesson in righteousness from her culture, why listen to Jesus’ teaching authority at all? Is cultural authority above the divine authority that Matthew ascribes to Jesus? Such a questioning of authority would inevitably undermine other areas of Jesus’ teaching, and thus can hardly be present in Matthew’s Gospel.

A further problem emerges from the lesson this Canaanite woman allegedly gives Jesus: a new understanding of his mission. Thus, Patte states that “Jesus…allows her to transform the understanding he has of his mission.”[7] Still others say that “her encounter with Jesus helps him discover the wider scope of his healing mission, beyond geopolitical and cultural boundaries.”[8]Gail O’Day offers that “it is the marginal one, the one who would be reckoned ‘unclean’, who pushes Jesus to new possibilities,” and goes on to say that “Jesus was changed by this woman’s boldness. …She insists that Jesus be Jesus, and through her insistence she frees him to be fully who he is.”[9] Perhaps this quote fromO’Day most concisely captures the problem with this line of thought in insisting that Jesus is liberated by the Canaanite woman to be who he truly is; again, this simply does not match the Matthean Jesus (or for that matter, the Jesus of any of the Gospels or the tradition). Jesus is never shown as constrained, but rather as eminently free; thus, he reaches out and touches lepers (cf. Mt 8:3); he defies the authority of the scribes and Pharisees by declaring himself “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mt 12:8), by performing an act tantamount to blasphemy in forgiving the sins of a paralytic (cf. Mt 9:1-8),and even, in the immediate context of this pericope, confronting the temple authorities by providing a new teaching regarding cleanliness (cf. Mt 15:1-21). Furthermore, Jesus is shown throughout the Gospels as associating closely with women, despite how socially unacceptable this would have been (cf. John 4:27). How, then, can it be claimed that Jesus was set free by this woman from the societal pressures and preconditioning that would have led him to treat her as an inferior, when Jesus showed time and again that he was in no way constrained by the world in which he lived, that he was free to do what was right and reach out to those society regarded as untouchables?

Furthermore, how can scholars claim that Jesus came to a new understanding of his mission through this encounter? To make such a claim would necessitate two things: a prior ignorance of his mission, and an evident change in his mission after the encounter. Neither of these is present in the Gospel. From the beginning, Jesus is fully aware of his mission (as, for instance, that he has “come not to abolish [the law or the prophets] but to fulfill [them]” (Mt 5:17)), and within a chapter of this pericope is already foretelling his Passion (cf. Mt 16:21-23).Nor do Gentiles first enter the scope of Jesus’ mission in this encounter; from his birth, Matthew presents Jesus as the Savior of the nations through the visit of the Magi (cf. Mt 2:1-12); and several chapters before the encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus heals the servant of another Gentile, a Roman centurion—a story similar to this encounter in that the centurion comes begging for the healing of another, is perhaps as untouchable as the Canaanite woman (for centurions would have been particularly detested due to their oppressive role in Jesus’ society), and is acclaimed by Jesus for the greatness of his faith (cf. Mt 8:5-13).Perhaps the more reasonable conclusion is that, rather than Jesus not understanding his mission, we do not understand it; or perhaps more realistically, we read into the pre-resurrection Jesus the same mission given to the post-resurrection Church—but why need these be the same? As one commentary states, Jesus “came to bring his Gospel to the whole world, but he himself addressed only the Jews; later on he [would] charge his apostles to preach the Gospel to the pagans.”[10] This recalls the second requirement for showing that Jesus gained a new understanding of his mission: there would need to be a marked change in his ministry—more than simply healing this one woman’s daughter, for that is hardly different from the healing already performed for the centurion. Yet no such radical change occurs—Jesus continues to minister to the “house of Israel” (Mt 15:24).[11] Indeed, in John’s Gospel, when Jesus is approached by “some Greeks,” he takes this as the sign that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12:20, 23)—thus, the hour for the Gospel to spread to the Gentiles is tied to the hour for the Passion and the Resurrection; only after the Resurrection could the Gospel spread beyond the Jews.[12]This coincides with the mission given by Jesus to his followers in Matthew’s Gospel: before his death, he commissions the disciples to evangelize but instructs them: “‘Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (Mt 10:5-6). Following the Resurrection, Jesus then commissions them to “‘Go…and make disciples of all nations’” (Mt 28:19).Perhaps rather than seeing Jesus as ignorant of the Father’s true mission for him (as going beyond Israel), a clearer understanding of Jesus’ mission as a Jew would be helpful, such as that expounded by Daniel Harrington, SJ:

If one wishes to be true to the biblical witness, it is necessary to present clearly what the Scriptures say about the chosenness of Israel and how Christians share in it through Jesus. The God of Jesus is the God of Israel. Gentiles call upon and experience this God through Jesus as representative of the Jewish people. The roots of Christianity are Jewish. Gentile Christians have been grafted onto the olive tree (see Rom 11:17, 24).[13]

John Kilgallen, SJ, who likewise emphasizes that the limitation of Jesus’ mission during his life was part of the divine plan (as was the expansion of the mission after his resurrection), furthermore states that this limitation would have been a fulfillment of God’s promises, for in the Old Testament he had promised time and again to watch over his chosen people—Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of the promise, and thus it seems reasonable that he should have come to the Jews.[14]

Perhaps the most radical claim made in seeking to explain the behavior of Jesus is that this pericope reveals Jesus’ faults, his sinfulness, and ultimately his conversion. Patte refers to this brokenness as a necessary part of Jesus’ humanity (thus, for Patte, to say that Jesus was truly incarnate, is to say that he acquired these broken ways and was conditioned negatively by his society); this brokenness is also our way of relating to Jesus, for like him, we often “ignore desperate cries for help, especially if they come from people who are different from us, be it in terms of class, race, culture, religion, and/or gender.”[15]Patte does not shrink from the necessary logical conclusion of such a claim regarding Jesus’ humanity: “from the perspective of the unfolding of the plot [of the Gospel] this means that prior to the resurrection he was not the almighty (and omniscient) resurrected kyrios.”[16] Even Schipani, who at one point states that “we must reject…as proposed by some radical feminists…that Jesus had to be converted (repent from sin),” will elsewhere claim that “He seems to be pushed to face the possibility of his own faithlessness and abandonment of God at this point and, thereby, to come face to face with the holiness of God ‘beyond the boundaries’ at the prompting of the foreign woman.”[17]

Though it is certainly important to emphasize the humanity of Christ to fully understand him, this must be done while recognizing that he “has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15; italics mine). Furthermore, an emphasis on his humanity cannot be to the exclusion of his divinity, as is done by claims that he came to know God better—he himself was and is God, and furthermore alone can reveal God, for as Jesus states in Matthew’s Gospel: “‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him’” (Mt 11:27). To claim that he undergoes a conversion and thus comes “face to face with the holiness of God” entirely defies such an understanding of Jesus. Unlike Patte claims, Jesus is portrayed by Matthew as almighty (as revealed for instance in his working of miracles), and omniscient (as in reading the thoughts of the scribes who accuse him of blaspheming when he forgives the sins of the paralytic (cf. Mt 9:4)) long before the resurrection—Jesus is Lord and God from the very outset of the Gospel, paid homage to by the Magi and by John the Baptist. Yet a deeper issue is revealed by these claims regarding Jesus as a man broken and in need of conversion—clearly disturbed by what appears to be a sinful Jesus who does not square with the image of a divine Messiah, these scholars have sought to show him as in need of growth; yet as L.D. Hart has so pointedly explained, “One would think it would occur to any trained expositor that if he or she has found an incident that does not fit, clinically speaking, the psychological maturity, the emotional level of differentiation, the intellectual development, or the spiritual stature of Jesus then perhaps one’s interpretation is mistaken.”[18]

What, then, is a viable interpretation of this passage that assumes Jesus is fully aware of his mission and does not need to repent of his attitude towards this woman? What interpretation can account for his brusque language and his seemingly radical change in responding to the Canaanite woman? Perhaps the key to such an interpretation lies with one of the major propositions critiqued above: seeing Jesus, rather than the Canaanite woman, as teacher. Two initial observations help elucidate such an interpretation: first, as compared to the Markan account, “Matthew expands greatly the conversational element”[19]—thus, for Matthew the dialogue between Jesus and the Canaanite woman (as well as the disciples) is absolutely key. Second, the context for this pericope is fundamental: as mentioned, Jesus has just finished teaching about cleanliness—in this pericope, that teaching is continued and applied specifically to the question of the separation between Jews and Gentiles; the Gentiles, despite the tradition to the contrary, are not truly unclean. This is certainly the view advocated by Kukzin Lee, who states, “the Canaanite woman’s incident should be examined in relation to its preceding pericope…Jesus’ ministry among the Gentiles in Tyre and Sidon could be an example of his termination of the clean-unclean separation in the preceding pericope.”[20] Furthermore, there is a certain irony in that “Jesus acts like Pharisees and scribes in [this] pericope, not representing his own thought”[21]—Jesus takes up the role of those he has just refuted in the previous pericope so as to again refute their beliefs, this time with regards to the Gentiles. By stepping into their role, and presenting “responses [that] are exactly what the contemporary readers might have expected from a Jewish rabbi,” Jesus will then refute them in ultimately turning against his own statements (and implicitly theirs) by granting the miracle sought.[22]

This model of Jesus as a rabbinical teacher ultimately provides a lesson for the reader (who is aware of the previous controversy regarding uncleanness) more so thanfor the Canaanite woman; yet Jesus teaches her as well, acting as a sage within the bounds of this pericope. This role explains much of what seems contradictory in Jesus’ demeanor and speech, for as R.T. France states, “A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view.”[23] Hart, who is particularly intent on likening Jesus to the “sages of all great wisdom tradition,”in turn outlines seven parts of a typical sage teaching method.Thus, for instance, he highlights that “the teacher waits for the right moment to emerge, and may seem unresponsive to inquirers and disciples who must themselves wait for the kairotic [opportune] moment,” which could help explain Jesus’ silence when the woman first asks for his help (“But he did not say a word in answer to her” (Mt 15:23)).[24]