This Sunday’s Gospel reading is Matthew 15, 21-28; ‘The Canaanite Woman’s Faith.’ Could there be a more fitting gospel narrative for our times?
There seem to be three things ‘wrong’ with the Canaanite Woman. Two of her ‘wrongs’ are given away in the title: she is a woman and, she is a Canaanite. Her third ‘wrong’ is in having a thoroughly dodgy daughter; so dodgy that we are told she is possessed by an evil spirit.
The Canaanite woman is the archetype of someone whose very presence is unsettling, disturbing, even unwelcome. The Canaanite woman is the sort of person designed to inhabit the saying ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ But, the amazing thing about the unnamed, and therefore shamed Canaanite woman, is that she is audacious, plucky and, possibly, let’s be honest, a bit of a pain in the backside. Oh yes, and she has faith. In fact I would go further and say she has a quality of faith. This quality of faith allows her to do two things: acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, Lord, and Son of David whilst also saying I too am who I am, and my offspring are just as important the offspring produced by your family and, friends.
At first Jesus seems to say ‘no you are not, and no they are not.’ Jesus appears to be invoking an in-group out-group mentality to the very great approval of his disciples. After all his disciples have complained about this third-rate individual to Jesus in frank and certain terms:
‘Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy,’ (Message Bible).
It seems as though in ancient biblical times people who were ranked second, third, or even fourth-rate drove the in group crazy! Plus ca change.
However the tables are slowly turned as the woman’s faith compels her to persist with her demands. I wonder how it must have felt for the watching disciples as their friend, leader and Messiah-to-be, cedes to the woman’s wishes? Again I like how the Message Bible puts it:
‘Oh woman your faith is something else. What you want is what you get.’
The disciples who had hitherto been allowed, perhaps even encouraged, to consider this Canaanite woman a worthy and a legitimate candidate for exclusion are forced to watch as Jesus affirms both her right, and her daughters, to be included. The Canaanite woman stands both for those who are excluded and, those who have children who may, on whatever grounds, be excluded.
I reckon the disciples must have been shocked and stunned by Jesus apparent volte face. I wish Matthew had told us something about the post encounter debrief between Jesus and the disciples but there again maybe it is better that he didn’t. Pehaps this is a space that we need to enter into using our imagination?
Perhaps, the questions we need to ask include who are the contemporary equivalents of the Canaanite woman, and, for what contemporary out-groups does the Canaanite woman stand as an archetype?
And,possibly here is a lesson for all who consider themselves to be part of an ever so right in group: those whose faith compels them to seek inclusion based on the straightforward acceptance of who they are before God are not going to stop, again in the words of the Message Bible, ‘coming back’ with their demands.
Perhaps one of the most significant lessons from the story of the Canaanite woman and her faith is that the demands for acceptance, recognition and inclusion, rightfully and rite-fully, in the life of the church, by out-groups whatever the critics may say, stems from one source: faith.