The importance of interreligious dialogue today should be evident to everyone. Yet when Christian theologians try to find New Testament foundations for such dialogue, they come up against such texts as Jn 14:6 (“I am the way and the truth and the life”) and Acts 4:12 (“nor is there any other name…by which we are to be saved”). Christians must take these texts seriously because they represent the basic thrust of the New Testament. Matthew’s surprising narrative about Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman, however, may offer a point of entry for Christians committed to interreligious dialogue.
This encounter has many surprising features. It takes place in “the region of Tyre and Sidon,” outside the traditional territory of the chosen people. The woman who approaches Jesus is described as a “Canaanite” (not as “a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth,” as in Mark). In this way Matthew shows her relation to the ancient pagan inhabitants of the area and very much an outsider to Jesus’ people and movement. Moreover, as a Gentile woman in a very patriarchal society, she shows courage and boldness in approaching a Jewish teacher like Jesus, calling him “Son of David” and requesting him to heal her daughter.
Jesus’ role in the initial stages of the dialogue is also surprising. He responds to her request initially in an uncharacteristic and unattractive way by announcing that his mission is “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Matters grow worse when he refuses her plea by lumping her together with “the dogs,” a pejorative term applied by some Jews to non-Jews. As the story proceeds, these two statements serve as the occasion for highlighting the Canaanite woman’s faith in Jesus.
The greatest surprise is that through dialogue Jesus seems to change his mind and comes to display great openness to the faith of this non-Jewish woman. This is the only debate in the Gospels in which Jesus seems to lose an argument. One can interpret Jesus’ behavior as “only a test” of the woman’s faith. But one can also find in it an instance where through dialogue Jesus learns something and changes his attitude and behavior. He appears to come to understand better that his mission includes not only his own people, Israel, but also outsiders like the Canaanite woman and her daughter. While the primary goal of interreligious dialogue is better mutual understanding, it often happens that through such dialogue we come to understand ourselves better and make changes for the good of all.
A key New Testament text in dialogues between Christians and Jews since the Second Vatican Council has been Romans 9–11, which is Paul’s long and dense meditation on the place of the Jewish people in God’s mysterious plan of salvation. In today’s excerpt Paul insists that Israel has played an essential role in that plan and continues to do so, and that God’s gift and call to his people remain irrevocable.