Two Gospel narratives reveal that Jesus’ ministry extended even to Gentiles. One is today’s story of the Canaanite woman and the other is the healing of the centurion’s slave. The Canaanite woman also appears in Mark, and the centurion appears elsewhere only in Luke. Only in Matthew’s Gospel do both narratives appear.
‘Lord, help me.’ (Mt 15:25)
Which of your prayers demand perseverance?
To whose prayers can your voice bring new strength?
The account of the Canaanite woman thus appears redundant at first. Matthew has already established that a true Israelite is someone with faith in Jesus’ message (Mt 8:10). Matthew makes a few changes to Mark’s version of today’s Gospel that allow him to make a claim even stronger than including Gentiles in Jesus’ ministry. The Canaanite woman’s stubborn prayer is a genuine example of the faith of Israel.
Matthew reworks Mark’s narrative in a number of ways. He transforms Mark’s discursive prose into a full-scale dialogue. This is significant, since, in the ancient world, the dialogue form indicated a search for the truth. Matthew’s change tells us that the conclusion had implications larger than the story.
Another detail unique to Matthew is the epithet “Son of David” that the woman uses for Jesus. David was a shepherd, and this royal title evokes the responsibility of the ancient kings to keep the nation whole. God’s speech in Ez 34:16 echoes some of those duties: “The lost I will search out, the strays I will bring back, the injured I will bind up and the sick I will heal.”
This duty extended only to the people of Israel. The woman in today’s story is a Canaanite (Mark uses the Greek name for the same people, “Phoenician”). She came from the nation that had produced a number of Israel’s enemies and whose deity, Baal, had nearly usurped the Lord’s role as national God. Because of her nationality, her narrative departs from the story of the centurion. This is not a pious, high-status foreigner asking for a one-time favor. This is a needy and potentially hostile outsider whose desperate faith inspires her to claim a place, however lowly, in the inheritance of Israel.
The wider implication of the dialogue, then, is that Gentile membership in the community of faith was not a restricted favor to a few elite individuals. It was the common inheritance of all people. Although it took the early church a long time to sort out the details, Matthew establishes that anyone with a tenacious faith in the grace offered through Jesus had a place among the followers of Christ.
Even though these questions of inclusion have been long settled for Christians, the woman’s perseverance is still ours to emulate. A key Christian inheritance from Israelite faith is that persistent prayer for an impossible goal yields surprising grace. Abraham, for example, prayed diligently for a son even after he and his wife could no longer conceive. Not only were his prayers answered, but along the way he also developed a friendship with God unique in the Scriptures. Tenacity in prayer, even in the face of impossibility, reveals a true person of faith.
Our prayer must be equally resolute, remaining open to God’s surprising grace. When we receive no answer, we must persevere. When others tell us to stop, we must persevere. As long as we need God’s grace and help, even when we cannot imagine how it will come, we must persevere. The resolute faith of one woman delivered a child from evil. The tenacious prayer of a church can transform a world.