Christ in conversation with the Canaanite woman ... a modern icon
Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,
Sunday, 14 August 2011,
The Eighth Sunday after Trinity
11 a.m., Cathedral Eucharist
Genesis 45: 1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28.
May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I am embarrassed at times when I am caught off-guard, caught with my compassion down. So often, I fail to respond to the needs of others, not just in giving, but in being their advocate, in speaking up for them, in being compassionate, in sharing their pain, in seeing who they truly are inside rather than how they appear to be on the outside.
But would any of us like to be seen behaving the way Christ behaves in the second part of our Gospel reading this morning, when he meets the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman in the district of Tyre and Sidon?
On a first reading, the Gospel account of this meeting seems to show us Christ at first rejecting the pleas of a distressed woman, deeply worried about her daughter. One writer suggests that in this story Christ 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 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, Christ and his disciples have arrived in the coastal area of Tyre and Sidon, perhaps looking for a quiet break for a few days.
This is foreign territory, inhabited mainly by Canaanites or Phoenicians. In the Bible, Sidon was the city of Jezebel (I Kings 16: 31), and the area was associated with the Prophet Elijah, who raises the widow’s child from death (I Kings 17: 9-24), and who, in Father Kieran O’Mahony’s words, “was markedly, even offensively, open to foreigners.”
These were coastal, cultured cities, Hellenised and Greek-speaking since the days of Alexander the Great, and known for the arts and commerce. Sidon was the first city of the Phoenicians and the mother city of Tyre, known as its “Virgin Daughter” (see Isaiah 23: 12). Mothers and daughters – one of the great archaeological finds from Sidon is the “Sarcophagus of the Crying Women,” now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
Detail from the “Sarcophagus of the Crying Women,” from Sidon, now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum
So, Christ 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, to take miraculous care of a lone mother and her child? Or would they expect him to treat all Phoenician women like Jezebel and leave them to the dogs?
In Saint Matthew’s account, the woman who confronts Christ is a Canaanite woman; in Saint Mark’s telling (Mark 7: 24-31), 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 Greek playwright Euripides wrote his tragic play The Phoenician Women (Φοίνισσαι, Phoenissae), rewriting a story told by Aeschylus in Seven Against Thebes, dealing with tragic events after the fall of Oedipus.
The title of the play, The Phoenician Women, refers to the chorus, composed of Phoenician women on their way to serve in the Temple of Apollo in Delphi but trapped in Thebes by the war. But the Phoenician Women in the chorus – and remember a Greek chorus was normally played by wizened old men – are mere bystanders, watching an unfolding tragedy that disrupts their plans.
The two key women in the play are Iocasta and her daughter Antigone, who have survived against all odds. These two women, mother and daughter, challenge the accepted concepts in the Classical world of fate and free-will. In the face of death, they refuse to accept what others would impose as their destiny; they refuse to be pushed aside, marginalised and dismissed while the men around them compete for power.
So, in the time of Christ, cultured, Greek-speaking people, including those in Tyre and Sidon, expected a Greek-speaking Phoenician woman and her daughter to 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 their retinues, to challenge them, and to risk rejection, exile and even death.
For their part, the disciples, probably not open to this cultural dimension, would have dismissed the woman as a gentile, a stranger, a foreigner, a Greek-speaker and a woman. Her religion, language, nationality and gender place her beyond their compassion.
Like the chorus staged by Eurpides, they become wizened old men, obsessed only with their religious future and failing to have compassion for the outsiders who enter their lives, talking in asides at the side of the tragedy, but not actually engaging with it.
Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 164r - The Canaanite Woman (The Musée Condé, Chantilly)
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 the same for herself too.
Her dialogue with Christ must have sounded crude and aggressive to those who overhear the drama, who witness the tragedy. This pushy woman forces herself onto the stage, addresses Christ in Messianic terms, and demands not that he should heal her daughter, but that he should show mercy. 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, Christ appears to treat her with contempt. At first, he does not even respond to her; he utters not even a word. Instead, he turns away and tells his friends, the chorus, that 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 Christ. The original Greek tells us she prostrated herself in homage and worship before him, perhaps touching her forehead to the ground, and saying “Lord, help me” (verse 25), ἡ δὲ ἐλθοῦσα προσεκύνει αὐτῷ λέγουσα, Κύριε, βοήθει μοι.
Christ then describes his fellow Jews as “little children,” and shockingly compares the Gentiles with dogs, little dogs (verse 26). Today, it sounds like he is 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 in Saint Luke’s Gospel we see how low the beggar Lazarus has sunk that outside the gates of Dives the dogs lick his sores (Luke 16: 19-31, see especially verse 21).
Despite the title of Don Bluth’s animated movie, All Dogs go to Heaven (1989), it was held at the time of Christ that dogs must be kept outside the city gates, and that they were the only animals excluded with certainty from heaven (see Revelation 22: 15). And the disciples would have thought instantly of that other pushy Phoenician woman, Jezebel, who met her death by being thrown to the dogs in the streets.
All this makes Christ’s words and images deeply offensive, culturally and theologically, unless he is engaging in humorous banter with this woman.
In the small miniature below Jean Colombe’s painting of the story of the Canaanite woman, the Disciples, gathered like a Greek chorus, can see her but cannot see the body language and facial reaction of Christ
For one moment, try to imagine the body language that accompanies this conversation. Imagine you are trying to stage this Gospel story as drama. You would have Christ talking face-to-face with this pleading, pushy woman. But the disciples are standing behind him, like wizened old men in a Greek chorus, or like the women in the chorus in the Phoenician Women ... more distressed by the disruption to their religious careers than they are by the plight of a mother and her daughter and the tragedy that unfolds around them.
The disciples, as a chorus, can see the woman’s facial reactions to Christ… but they cannot see the face of Christ.
By now, he has engaged with this woman face-to-face. So, she now knows it’s worth pushing her demands for mercy and help. So who is Christ expecting a response from? The woman has already shown both her compassion and her faith. The question now is – can the disciples also show proof of their compassion and faith?
The woman not only has compassion and faith, but she also shows humour when, in her response to Christ she engages in banter with him. She tells him that even puppy dogs, when they are away from adult view, play under the table.
Could Christ, when he is away from the view of Jewish crowds, not engage with those he does not sit to table with, but who nevertheless are in his presence, those he had dismissed as dogs?
Christ appreciates this encounter: her insistence on meeting him face-to-face, her refusal to be oppressed on the grounds of ethnicity, history, religion, language or gender, her forthright way of speaking and her subliminal but humorous comparisons are all part of the drama. They all combine to show that she is a woman of faith, and this produces results. In Saint Mark’s Gospel, Christ responds to her demands, and she returns home to find her child has been healed (Mark 7: 30). Saint Matthew has Christ go further – he commends her for her faith ... and her daughter is healed instantly (verse 28).
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 to the foreign woman who wants the same treatment in hospital for her child as Irish-born children get?
How do we respond when foreigners who are more open and joyful in conversation appear to encroach on our privacy on the bus, on the street, in the shops?
Are we like the Disciples, and want to send them away? Or are we like Christ, and engage in conversation with them? Do we think we have some privileges that should not be shared with the outsider and the stranger? Do we remain silent when they plead for their children but are deported against their will?
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 they have to raise funds with charity events while their children wait for treatment?
Or could we say, as the Phoenician Women in the Chorus say after hearing the distress of Iocasta and Antigone: ‘Pity distracts my aching heart, pity for a mother’s heart’?
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 Christ 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 does not ask for healing for her daughter. She first asks Christ for mercy. And she gets no answer. She asks again for help, not for her daughter, but for herself. And she is rebuffed. But she is insistent; she refuses to accept what other people regarded as her fate and destiny. And, in the end, she receives the mercy and help she asks for, and much, much more … for she is commended in front of the disciples for her faith, and her daughter is 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 so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Blessed are you, O Lord,
and blessed are those who observe and keep your law:
Help us to seek you with our whole heart,
to delight in your commandments
and to walk in the glorious liberty
given us by your Son, Jesus Christ.
Post Communion Prayer:
Strengthen for service, Lord,
the hands that holy things have taken;
may the ears which have heard your word
be deaf to clamour and dispute;
may the tongues which have sung your praise be free from deceit;
may the eyes which have seen the tokens of your love
shine with the light of hope;
and may the bodies which have been fed with your body
be refreshed with the fullness of your life;
glory to you for ever.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday 14 August 2011.
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