This article originally appeared in the Sunday Gospel reflection newsletter on August 19.
One of the most controversial of all Gospel stories, at least in terms of how it is interpreted, comes in the Gospel of Matthew, in which a “Canaanite” woman approaches Jesus (15:21-28). Mark’s Gospel calls her “a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth” (7:24-29). Jesus is in the “region of Tyre and Sidon,” which was then considered “pagan” territory. The woman, says Matthew, “comes forth,” so it is unclear if Jesus is entering the region or merely passing through.
What she says to Jesus seems simple enough, echoing many other requests made of him during his public ministry. She asks him to heal her sick daughter. But unlike in other Gospel stories, Jesus not only fails to answer her (after his disciples suggest that he “send her away”) but when he does, he refuses to heal her daughter. Jesus was, in his words, sent only to the “lost sheep of Israel.” She is not one of those sheep.
So she asks again: “Lord, help me.” In response, Jesus says something remarkable: “It is not good to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
Over the years, I have heard many interpretations of what sound like harsh words from Jesus. The most benign is that Jesus intuited that the Canaanite woman could handle a blunt reply and would respond bluntly. Another interpretation is that he is being brusque to teach the disciples something about perseverance, by encouraging her to respond, as he knew she would. Also, the Greek word used in the passage is kynarion, meaning “puppies.” As Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., notes in the Sacra Pagina commentary on Matthew, reflecting on the choice of this word, “the harshness of the saying is softened somewhat.”
Still, as Father Harrington told our graduate New Testament class, at the former Weston Jesuit School of Theology, that it is still harsh, as Jesus is either calling her, her daughter or her people, “dogs.”
She falls at his feet and then persists, arguing that even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from the table. Impressed by her courage, Jesus says, “O woman, great is your faith,” and heals her daughter.
The interpretative controversy comes not only from Jesus’s seemingly harsh remarks, but from the idea that Jesus may be changing his mind or even learning from the woman. Why is this controversial? Simply that the Son of God had a divine consciousness and so wouldn’t need to “learn” anything. (The theological issue: Since Jesus is fully divine, he would have had a fully divine consciousness during his time on earth, and would know everything. But since Jesus was fully human, he would have had a fully human consciousness and would have to learn things.)
Clearly, though, Jesus changes course in his dealings with her. Why? He listens carefully to a courageous woman, from outside his community, share her hopes. As Jesus listens, she invites him to consider that his mission has a broader scope than just the “lost sheep of Israel.”
Who are the Canaanite women of today? Who, from marginal, rejected or excluded communities, invite the church to see that they, too, deserve to be heard? Here I think of many groups, but especially LGBTQ Catholics, who have sometimes been treated like “dogs” by people in their own church. I think of how they often long simply to get the “crumbs” from the table.
Yet they persist in their faith, asking church leaders to listen to them, as Jesus listened to the Canaanite woman 2,000 years ago.
The Son of God was humble enough to listen to the voice of a woman from the “outside,” praise her faith and do a great service for her by healing her sick daughter. He was humble enough to see that his mission was greater than originally thought.
Can the church listen with humility and the same attentiveness to those whom it considers “other”? And can it look upon such people, who have persevered for decades in the face of rejection, and say, with Jesus, “Great is your faith”?