In today’s Gospel, we hear the story of the Canaanite mother who seeks healing for her daughter. Jesus initially ignores her request, but through her creative persistence, she convinces him to perform a healing. Jesus’ initial disregard for the mother’s request is troubling. There are multiple reading strategies to help understand this narrative.
‘O woman, great is your faith!’ (Mt 15:28)
Are your persistent?
How can you promote open acceptance of all people?
Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ Jewish heritage and audience; and at the outset of his ministry, Jesus says to the disciples, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 10:5). Despite this, Jesus performs healings for two Gentiles, the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13) and the Canaanite woman’s daughter in today’s reading, showing some level of openness to Gentiles that is further confirmed when Jesus commissions the disciples to baptize “all nations” after the resurrection (Mt 28:19).
When the Canaanite woman asks for a healing, Jesus says, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Some interpreters attempt to soften this statement by noting that the Greek word used here (kynaria) actually means puppies or small dogs. Nonetheless, Jesus’ response was still offensive, as the children are the Jews and the small dogs are the Canaanites. Other books of the New Testament also refer to Gentiles as dogs (Mk 7:27-28; Phil 3:2; Rev 22:15). Eventually, Jesus agrees to help only after the woman creatively reworks his insult: “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus interprets her rebuttal as a sign of faithfulness and immediately heals her daughter.
This passage may reflect Matthew’s community, made up largely of Jewish Christians, working through how to understand the presence of Gentiles among Jesus’ followers. Matthew adapts his source text, Mk 7:24-30, in interesting ways. In Mark, Jesus enters the woman’s home in Tyre, a non-Jewish region, but Matthew situates the event outdoors in a more ambiguous location, possibly within or outside of the Gentile district. In Mark’s version of the insult, Jesus starts by saying, “Let the children be fed first” (Mk 7:24), suggesting that Gentiles can receive Jesus’ ministry eventually. Matthew eliminates the statement, making Jesus’ message sound more exclusively directed to Jews.
This narrative also might reveal Matthew’s evolving thinking about the Gospel and the role of Gentile women in salvation history. Matthew’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ genealogy, tracing his Jewish heritage through Joseph back to Abraham. The genealogy names mostly men; but in addition to Jesus’ mother, Mary, there are four other women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba). These women were either explicitly or implicitly non-Israelites who played a significant role in the history of Israel. Matthew might envision this Canaanite woman along the same lines, a woman outside of the tradition who helps shape its direction. Her insistence that Jesus heal her daughter contributes to the evolving Gospel message, which ultimately includes all people.