Speaking of faith, speaking of inclusion

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.





7 thoughts on “Speaking of faith, speaking of inclusion

  1. I’m excluded from Thinking Anglicans, but I doubt that the reply expected of the rhetorical question in this post is anything other than: ‘Ah, of course. The modern-day equivalent of the Canaanite woman is the LGBT couple. Shame on us for our Chalcedonian heresy’.

    There are sensible and stupid arguments on both sides of the debate, but it’s far too simplistic to use this gospel story to cast specific kinds of sexual behaviour as a part of a quasi-ethnicity, while others are, well, just plain old fallen human behaviour.

    • Thanks David. Obviously I don’t agree with the ‘far too simplistic’ line of argument. I sometimes think that the temptation exists to take that which is simple and over-complicate. You are always free to comment here. Regards, Andrew

  2. What do you make of lines 26 & 27? (NIV):

    26 He [Jesus] replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

    27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

    It sounds like Jesus is saying that the woman is inferior, and she is submissively agreeing.

    • Thanks Tim, I think I would want to say two things: First, even if (which I don’t necessarily accept) the superiority-inferiority idea is retained the woman is commended for her (superior) faith and, she and her daughter are affirmed. Secondly, the use of the word’dog,’ is interesting. Yes it may invoke images of superiority-inferiority whatever image of dog springs to mind. The Greek, I think I am correct in saying, doesn’t imply ‘beast,’ but something more akin to puppy. I still think that what we are seeing here is a drama being played out for the benefit of the watching apostles which ends up with a foreign women with a dodgy daughter being affirmed on the basis of her (superior) faith. Anyway – just a a few thoughts and, thank you once again for commenting.

    • Hi Tim,
      I’ve always considered that Jesus’ reply was no more than an initial echo of the popular Jewish sentiment about foreigners, but with which He disagreed (without vocalising as in Matt. 5:43 ‘you have heard that it was said’).

      What was stunning was how she managed to overcome that perceived lack of spiritual entitlement. Her ingeniously apt response captured Christ’s message that:
      Grace will provide,
      What, by status, we’d be denied.

  3. I think the response from Jesus, whether in Mark or Matthew, is not an easy one. Even if this is a drama for the disciples, is it fair to “use” such a vulnerable person in that way? In Matthew Jesus says nothing to her first request (v23), before the disciples start complaining.
    Whether the dogs are the scruffier kind or the pampered kind, the Canaanite woman is either being told she has to wait (“First let the children be fed” – Mark) or that it is not good for her to have this food – “it is not good to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs” – Matthew)
    Only when the woman pleads for crumbs, does Jesus respond, albeit very affirming.

    The passage is more problematic given that Jesus has healed the centurion’s slave, and they were Gentiles, and he travels to areas which are more Gentile.

    Theologically this story can be understood alongside the passage in John 12 where the Greeks wanted to see Jesus and his response about the seed that must first die in order to produce fruit.

    Is it too much to say that Jesus – in the face of this persistent and very sharp-minded woman – “bends” the rule (only after some internal wrestling), a rule which if applied too rigorously would be harsh. This would not be out of keeping with a gospel which explores both the keeping of the Law and the primacy of good deeds and good fruit in showing where the heart is.
    This demands prayer, mercy, wisdom and courage in how we – who are more “powerful” respond to the demands and needs and awkward ‘don’t-fit-in-our-box’ people, whoever they might be.
    This story is an irruption in so many ways into our ordered spaces. We should not smooth it too quickly.

    • Thank you for your comments. I still wouldn’t want to down play the notion that the disciples were active participants in watching an unfolding drama. Whether Jesus ‘bends’ or does something far more radical is an interesting point. I would (obviously) go for radical. I also think the vulnerability point is interesting. I see the woman as being, paradoxically, both vulnerable and yet assured.

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