Canadian Lenten Reflections 2

I wanted to continue the post on Canadian Lenten Reflections by pointing out a few things which we gain from attention to source and redaction criticism in a study of this passage. First, the passage also appears in Mark 7: 24-30, but not in the Gospel of Luke. In the parallel passage in Mark, the woman is described as a Syrophoenician, not a Canaanite woman. Second, the passage in Mark has a more developed narrative context, in which the woman seeks Jesus out, even though he wishes to be unknown (vv.24-25). Third, Jesus’ disciples do not ask him to send the woman away because she is annoying them, as they do in Matthew 15:23. Fourth, at no point in the Marcan passage does Jesus say that he only came for the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" as he does in Matthew. What do we make of these differences?

If we accept that Matthew has utilized Mark’s account, there are some intriguing changes that have been made. Matthew is known as the most "Jewish" of the four Gospels, with a greater focus on the Torah and Jesus’ relationship to Judaism as a whole. This might account for the woman being described as a "Canaanite," a term which denotes Israel’s ancient enemies; Syrophoenician is far less redolent with biblical meaning, naming her simply as a "Gentile" or "foreigner," but without the rich animosity that marks the relationship between Israel and the Canaanites. The context in Matthew also has the woman appearing on the scene as if out of nowhere, shouting, making a claim on Jesus’ attention. In Mark, the woman has made a concerted effort to find Jesus, demonstrating her faith in him; in Matthew, her appearance is a shock, demanding a response, from Jesus and his disciples. Jesus states that he has only come for the lost sheep of Israel, which is simply not found in Mark’s Gospel at all. It is, however, also found in Matthew’s Gospel in 10:5-6, which is where Jesus instructs his apostles not to go the Gentiles or Samaritans, but only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As such, when his disciples in Matthew 15:23 ask that Jesus send her away it makes some sense in light of his previous command to them in Matthew, even if they point to her shouting, not her ethnicity, as the issue.


Matthew both has access to "Jewish" sources related to Jesus’ mission (known collectively as M) and also has redacted or edited Mark’s Gospel to reflect more carefully Jesus’ mission to Israel. This is because, I would argue, Jesus’ initial mission was to the people of Israel proper and this is where he sent his first Apostles, just as Matthew states. The choosing of 12 Apostles is symbolic of the restoration of Israel, including the 10 tribes lost in the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria in the 8th century B.C.E. The prophets of the post-exilic period, when they foretold the coming day of the Lord and the establishment of the Kingdom of God, understood that prior to this all the tribes of Israel would be brought back together. Only after this restoration would all the nations stream to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel. This scenario was present in the actualization of Jesus’ mission and, I would claim, in Jesus’ self-consciousness: to the Jew first and then to the Greek, as Paul would later put it. As Matthew presents the encounter, however, the scenario of the Gentile mission appears in the plight of a suffering mother.

Jesus does not reject her, but he "does not answer her at all" (v.23). His disciples ask her to be sent away and Jesus answers- the disciples or the woman? - that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. At this point the woman kneels before Jesus and says straightforwardly, "Lord, help me" (v.25). Her statement indicates an acceptance of who Jesus is and what he can do for her, and more importantly what Jesus can do on her daughter’s behalf. Jesus seems to push back with his division of humanity into Jew ("the children") and Gentile ("the dogs"), but the woman is persistent: we can eat whatever crumbs are left over and, it is implied, still be (spiritually) fed. Jesus immediately acknowledges her great faith and "her daughter was healed instantly" (v. 28).

Without question, the woman is a powerful and admirable figure here - let no one claim, as is sometimes said, that the ancients did not love their children! Yet, she is neither engaged in consciousness raising nor is she helping Jesus overcome his racism. Jesus was always aware that the Kingdom of God was for all humanity; this was never in doubt, either in his own mission or in the prophetic texts of the O.T. But there was both a proper order of events - restoration of Israel, then Gentile mission - and the need to teach his apostles the nature of their role in the world mission. Jesus is teaching the Church as he challenges the woman: she has faith in who I am! She knows I can heal her daughter! She is persistent in prayer because of her faith and because of her love for her daughter. This is a Gentile, one of the "dogs." She is "annoying" because she cries out for mercy, she keeps shouting for Jesus. And Jesus does respond. He acknowledges her faith and her daughter is healed. Even the Gentiles can be saved. A part of this scenario is certainly the testing, the acknowledgement and the acceptance of the Canaanite woman’s faith. Her faith, however, was never in question for Jesus. it was, though, a question for the Apostles. I truly think the import of this encounter was a teaching moment for his apostles. Jesus is instructing them that the Gentiles will be welcome, and the Apostles will be the ones to bring them into the Church, whether they are fully conscious of this immediately after this event. Jesus’ commission to the Church to bring the Gospel to the whole world, Matthew 28:16-20, does not emerge simply out of thin air.

I think it is precisely on these issues that the Anglican Church of Canada’s lenten meditations fail. They omit the two verses, 23 and 28, which focus on the disciples, the one verse concretely, the other on the moment of insight regarding the faith of the Canaanite woman. Truly, Jesus also acknowledges the woman’s faith in Matthew, but it is unlike the parallel passage in Mark in which the woman’s faith is at the core of the whole story. This is why I see Jesus using this encounter to teach the Apostles as such a significant point in Matthew’s Gospel. Interestingly the lenten reflections offer a very "modern" interpretation, but pay no attention to source or redaction criticism and so miss the point of the passage in the context of Matthew’s Gospel and the world mission. They do, that is, what fundamentalist Christians are often accused of doing: taking a passage out of context, historically and literarily, and coming to a pre-determined conclusion as to what the text means. The lenten meditations all but accuse Jesus of racism, but omit the proper context, and some verses, and so miss the fact that Jesus was promoting the Gentile woman’s faith and so teaching his disciples, both then and now, that all will be welcome in the Church. Racism is a human failing, a sin, but it was not Jesus’ problem.

I think a question still remains, though, which is worth exploring: did Jesus not know that Gentiles could have faith in him until the woman approached him? Did he have to grow in knowledge regarding the Gentile mission? Next post I want to shed some light on the topic of Jesus’ human knowledge from the Church fathers and St. Thomas Aquinas.

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9 years 10 months ago
This seems like many words when a few will meet the case, to me. I read the Canadian meditation to my teenage son and his response was, ''no, Jesus wasn't being mean. He was just challenging her.'' I think that's what it simply comes down to. Jesus was saying, 'tell me why I should,'' knowing (because he was God, after all) right well who she was and what she was capable of. She told him. He rewarded her cleverness and her gumption. The rest of this is expending a lot of energy on suppositions.
9 years 10 months ago
Mari, I do think, as you say, that Jesus rewarded the woman's "cleverness and gumption." Jesus states that her faith was great. It is possible, of course, that "the rest of this is expending a lot of energy on suppositions," but answers begin with suppositions or hypotheses that ought to be tested. I try always to answer questions that arise from my reading of the text. That is, why does Jesus say in Matthew that he goes only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but not in Mark? Why is she the Canaanite woman in Matthew, but not in Mark? Why do the Apostles want Jesus to send her away in Matthew, but not in Mark? I start with concrete questions and try to answer them. Why? Because it is Scripture and I think we need to understand Scripture. I do not think I always have the correct answers, and I know that humility is essential in interpreting Scripture - I remind myself regularly as I read Scripture that I might be wrong - but I am willing to expend the energy because even when we acknowledge the great faith of the Canaanite woman, questions still remain. I am intrigued by puzzling out answers.


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