Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 164r - The Canaanite Woman (The Musée Condé, Chantilly)
Sunday 17 August 2008: Trinity 13
Genesis 45: 1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11: 1-2a, 5-15; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28.
May all our thoughts words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Ever since he first took part in the CMS summer camps in Kinsale, one of my sons has continued to wear a wristband that simply carried the initials WWJD – What Would Jesus Do?
He’s worn it every day since – in school, throughout his exams, on his holidays, even in the swimming pool.
It’s a popular phrase, and at first sight it’s an easy standard to look to when we need a yardstick for moral decisions and how to behave towards one another. But would you like to behave the way Jesus did when he first met the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman in the district of Tyre and Sidon?
Our Gospel reading this morning, on first reading, seems to show us a Jesus who first rejects the pleas of a distressed woman, deeply worried about her daughter. One writer suggests that this is a Gospel story where Jesus is caught with his compassion down. Even his disciples want to turn her away. They see her as a pest, a nuisance, a pushy woman breaking in to their closed space, their private area.
After a very trying and busy time, that included the beheading of John the Baptist, the feeding of the 5,000, the calming of the storm, and a major debate with leading Pharisees, the disciples and Jesus have arrived in the coastal area of Tyre and Sidon, an area of small villages, perhaps looking for a quiet break for a few days.
This is foreign territory, inhabited by a large number of Canaanites or Phoenicians, who were culturally Hellenised and mainly Greek-speaking. It was also territory associated with Elijah, the prophet who raises the widow’s child from death (I Kings 17: 9-24), and who, in Kieran O’Mahony’s words, “was markedly, even offensively, open to foreigners.”
So Jesus could expect to find himself among a large number of Greek-speaking “Gentiles” in this area. Would the Disciples expect him to behave like Elijah and to break all the rules in being open to them, take miraculous care of a lone mother and her chils?
If Jesus was planning simply to get away for a quiet break with his friends and companions, then those plans were frustrated when a woman from this region comes to him with her very pressing demands.
In Saint Matthew’s account, she is a Canaanite woman; in Saint Mark’s telling of the story (Mark 7: 27-31), she is a Greek or Syro-Phoenician woman (verse 26). Both mean the same thing, for Canaan in Hebrew and Phoenicia in Greek both mean the Land of Purple. She was a Gentile, a foreigner, a Greek-speaker and a woman. What right had she to invade their privacy? Could she not just accept life as it is?
In the classical world, Phoenician women were pushy women. About 400 years earlier, the great Greek playwright Euripides wrote his tragic play The Phoenician Women (Φοίνισσαι, Phoenissae), rewriting a similar story used by Aeschylus in his play, Seven Against Thebes, and dealing with tragic events following the fall of Oedipus.
The title of the play, The Phoenician Women, refers to the Greek chorus, which is composed of Phoenician women on their way to Delphi and who are trapped in Thebes by the war.
The two key women in the play by Euripides are Jocasta and her daughter Antigone, who have survived against all odds. They challenge the accepted concepts in Classical times of fate and free-will.
In the face of death, they refuse to accept what other people regarded as their destiny, they refused to be pushed aside, marginalised and dismissed as the men around then compete for power.
So, in the time of Jesus, educated, Greek-speaking people, including those around Tyre and Sidon, would have known how a Greek-speaking Phoenician woman and her daughter could be pushy when faced with what appeared to be a cruel fate, even if this involved confronting successful or ambitious men: they were prepared to stand up to kings and rulers, prepared to challenge them, and prepared to risk rejection and exile.
For their part, the disciples, who were probably without this cultural knowledge, would have dismissed the woman for what they saw her as: a Gentile, a stranger, a foreigner, a Greek-speaker and a woman. Her religion, language, nationality and gender put her beyond the compassion of the disciples.
But faced with her daughter’s needs, the woman ignores the disciples: she is direct and aggressive in demanding healing and justice. And in demanding justice and healing for her daughter, she is, of course, demanding these for herself too.
The dialogue between this woman and Jesus must have sounded crude and aggressive to those who had gathered around to hear what was going on.
This pushy woman forces herself into the house, addresses Jesus in Messianic terms, and demands not that he should heal her daughter, but that he should show mercy. On whom? On her tormented daughter? On the distressed mother? The NRSV translation is clear, where the RSV is not: in the original Greek, she asks for mercy for herself (verse 22).
At first, Jesus appears to treat her with contempt: at first he doesn’t even respond to her, he didn’t even utter one word. Instead, he turns away and tells his friends he is only here for the lost sheep of Israel (verse 24).
But she is persistent and – with a touch of melodrama – she throws herself at the feet of Jesus, the original Greek says she was worshipping him, saying “Lord, help me” (verse 25).
Jesus then shockingly describes his fellow Jews as “little children,” and compares the Gentiles with dogs, little dogs (verse 26).
Today, it would sound like Jesus was calling this woman a bitch, and her daughter a little bitch. But there is something even more shocking here: at that time, dogs were regarded as unclean animals. They were kept outside the city gates, and it was an indication of how low Lazarus had sunk that outside the gates the dogs licked his sores (Luke 16: 19-31, see especially verse 21).
Despite the title of Don Bluth’s 1989 animated movie, All Dogs go to Heaven, it was a popular teaching at that time that dogs were not only kept outside the city gates, but also that they were the only animals to be excluded with certainty from heaven (see Revelation 22: 15).
It is language that is deeply offensive, culturally and theologically, unless Jesus was engaging in humorous banter with this woman.
Just for one moment try to imagine the body language of the conversation, imagine you were trying to stage it as drama, to put it on stage. You would have Jesus talking face-to-face with this pleading, pushy woman. But the disciples are standing behind him and can see her facial reactions … but not the face of Jesus.
If, by now, Jesus has engaged with this woman face-to-face, she now knows it’s worth pushing her demands for mercy and help.
So who is Jesus looking for a response from? The woman has already shown both her compassion and her faith. But can the disciples also show compassion and faith.
The woman not only has compassion and faith, but she also shows humour when, in her response to Jesus she engages in banter with him, telling him that even puppy dogs, when they are away from adult view, play under the table. Could Jesus, when he is away from the view of Jewish crowds, not engage with those he doesn’t sit at table with but who nevertheless are in his presence, those he had dismissed as dogs?
Jesus appreciates this encounter: her insistence on meeting him face-to-face, her refusal to be oppressed on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, language or gender, her forthright way of speaking and her subliminal but humorous comparisons are all part of the drama in this story
And this combination, when it all combines to show that she is a woman of faith, produces results. In Saint Mark’s Gospel, Jesus responds to her demands and when she returns home she finds her child has been healed (Mark 7: 30). In Saint Matthew’s account this morning, Jesus goes further – he commends her for her faith (verse 28) and her daughter is healed instantly.
Nothing is said about the response of the disciples, who had been trying to push her away, despite her crying, her tears, her distress, her plight over her daughter.
Nothing is said about the response of the disciples … because we are the disciples. How do you and I respond to encounters like this?
As a social response, for example, we might consider that the confrontation is an illustration of how we might respond to the needs of strangers and foreigners.
Do we find them pushy and demanding? How do we respond when the foreign woman in our society wants the same treatment in hospital as Irish-born children? How do we respond when foreigners who are more open and joyful in conversation, appear to be encroaching on our privacy on the bus, on the street or in a shop? Are we like the Disciples, and want to send them away? Or are we like Jesus, and engage in conversation with them? Do we think we have some privileges that should not be shared with the outsider and the stranger?
How do we respond to people who are pushy and continue to demand care for their children in the face of society’s decision to say no? The parents who want teaching support for children with learning disabilities, the parents who want to know why children’s hospitals are so badly funded that they have to raise funds with charity events while their children wait for treatment.
But this Gospel story also raises questions at a personal, spiritual level too, when it comes to matters of faith.
How many people do you know who give up when they turn to God in prayer and find those who are supposed to represent Jesus appear to turn them away? How many times have I dismissed the needs and prayers of others because they appear to be outside the community of faith as I understand it? And, at a personal level, how many times have I gone to God in prayer, and given up at what appears to be the first refusal?
This woman never asked for healing for her daughter. She first asked Jesus for mercy. She had a difficult situation back at home and may have found it difficult to deal with. And she got no answer. She asked again for help, not for her daughter, but for herself. And she was rebuffed. But she was insistent, she refused to accept what other people regarded as her fate and destiny. And in the end, she received the mercy and help she asked for, and lots, lots more … for she was commended in front of the disciples for her faith, and her daughter was healed, healed instantly.
We do not have to accept misery in our family life, even if others see it as our fate or our destiny. And in simple prayers we may find more in the answer than we ever ask for.
And now, may all our thoughts words and deeds continue to be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, at 10.30 a.m. on Sunday 17 August 2008.