Matthew 15: 21-28 Woman Great is Your Faith

Matthew 15: 21-28

Parallel Mark 7: 24-30

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Insiders, like the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem, are scandalized by Jesus and their inability to perceive and understand what Jesus places them in the position of Chorazin and Bethsaida (11:21-22) who had every reason to see and turn toward Jesus. Yet, as Jesus continues his harvest among the lost sheep of the house of Israel, outsiders like the Magi, the centurion and now this Canaanite woman are those who perceive and understand who Jesus is and what he is able to do. Many commentators and preachers seem to get caught up in this moment where Jesus seems to, in Sharon Ringe’s memorable words, “be caught with his compassion down.” (Ringe, 1985, p. 69) While Jesus initial lack of response and later challenge to this Canaanite woman may be unexpected to many readers of the gospels, Matthew uses this scene both to challenge existing prejudgments about what this ministry to the lost sheep of Israel truly entails and contrasts her faith to what has been seen in Israel.

Jesus withdraws to the region of Tyre and Sidon, an area already mentioned as an area prejudged by many to be a place of unrighteousness, but who Jesus mentions favorably in comparison to Chorazin and Bethsaida who have seen many acts of power and have not repented. This coastal area which is on the boundary of Galilee and the Gentile world have a complicated relationship with the people of Israel. During the time of David and Solomon there is a favorable trading relationship between Tyre and Israel until the King of Tyre views the cities and land he receives in return for the resources and labor he sends Israel as unacceptable (1 Kings 9: 10-14). In Psalm 45, which is composed for the a royal wedding, describes the people of Tyre seeking the new bride’s favor: “The people of Tyre will seek your favor, the richest of all people with all kinds of wealth.” (Psalm 45: 12-13, see also Zechariah 9: 2-3 on the wealth of Tyre and Sidon) Yet, perhaps because of their wealth from trading, Tyre and Sidon are frequently castigated by the prophets (most notable the Oracle concerning Tyre in Isaiah 23, the proclamation against Tyre in Ezekiel 26, but see also Jeremiah 47:4, Ezekiel 38, 39, Joel 3:4, and Amos 1: 9-10). Hearers of this story of Jesus traveling to the region of Tyre and Sidon with a Jewish background have a long history with the region of Tyre and Sidon to prejudice their view of what might occur there, but also may question why Jesus and his disciples would withdraw to an area like this.

In addition to the judgments hearers of this story might make about the region we also have the brief introduction of the woman who calls out to Jesus which invites another set of possible judgments. Instead of Mark’s categorization of the woman more neutrally as a ‘Syrophoenician’ woman, Matthew uses the term ‘Canaanite.’ While both Canaanite and Syrophoenician can refer to the same people, within Israel’s story the Canaanites are those who opposed Israel. This animosity is recorded, for example, in the curse of Noah in Genesis 9: 25-27 where Canaan, the grandson of Noah, is cursed while his uncle Shem (the ancestor of Abraham and eventually Israel) is blessed:

Noah said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.”

The Canaanites were the people who opposed the Israelites in their occupation of the promised land in Joshua, and they were considered a threat to lead the people of Israel away from their faith in the LORD, the God of Israel. For example, in Psalm 106:

They did not destroy the peoples as the LORD commanded them, but they mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood. (Psalm 106: 34-38)

In addition to the territory and the people the woman is labeled being a part of we have the additional note that she comes loudly appealing to Jesus alone. What makes this strange in the ancient world is that it would normally be a man who would appeal to Jesus, and so we also wonder if the father of the daughter is absent from the picture. We don’t have enough information to know the reason the mother appeals to Jesus instead of the father, but the absence of information is the place where prejudices fill in the blank. Yet in stories where women boldly seek what they need in the gospels: the widow who appeals to the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), the Samaritan woman who has no husband (John 4) or the woman with a flow of blood (Matthew 9: 20-22), their needs are fulfilled.

There is one more woman from this region that we should be aware of who may help prepare us for the story, and that is the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17. Zarephath is in the region of Tyre and Sidon and it is to this widow that the LORD sends Elijah, and Elijah later raises her son. Luke highlights this story in Luke 4: 25-26 when Jesus is rejected in his hometown. While Matthew never mentions this story, an attentive hearer may wonder if something like Elijah’s miracle is a possibility here. This is also reinforced by the way Matthew uses titles for Jesus. Here the woman refers to Jesus as Lord (three times and indirectly a fourth) and Son of David, and in Matthew those who address Jesus as Lord indicate both that the person has faith and that a positive response can be expected.

One of my intents in this reading is to uncover alternate possibilities to how we might hear these narratives that are masked by the translation into English. The dominant reading of this passage is that Jesus in prejudgment against this woman intends to deny her request initially and is only later convinced that because of her great faith that her request is worthy of his attention. Slowing the narrative down I believe there is more nuance than we often hear. The initial response is not given by Jesus but by the disciples and their response is literally “Release her (Greek Apoluso ), that one crying out behind us.” The translation of ‘send her away’ indicates one possible meaning of ‘release her’ but it can also indicate a desire to release her from what troubles her (thereby granting her request). This is also the same word in Greek that the disciples use when they ask Jesus to release the crowd in the previous chapter before the feeding of the five thousand men (14: 15, again the NRSV ‘send the (crowds) away’) which may give us an inkling to Jesus’ eventual response.  Jesus initial response is not to the woman but to the disciples and his response in a wooden (close to the Greek text without smoothing into English syntax) translation would be “Not I was sent if not into the sheep of the ruined/lost/perished (Greek apolulota which sounds similar to apoluso but comes from a different root) house of Israel.” Jesus has invited his disciples into the question of the boundaries of the house of Israel and who he was sent to but perhaps he has also opened the window for them to be the one who heals the woman’s daughter.[1] One of the underlying themes in Matthew’s gospel has been the permeability of the boundaries of this house of Israel and the way in which others, particularly women, have boldly made a place for themselves within those boundaries.

This Canaanite woman refuses to allow her fate to rest in the disciple’s discernment but instead comes, worships and pleads “Lord, come to my aid.” The word translated by the NRSV as ‘knelt’ is the Greek proskuneo, which literally means to prostrate oneself before and is often associated with worshipping. Matthew uses this word more than Mark and Luke combined and the usage is almost always associated with worship. Most recently this word was used in relation to the disciples’ response to Jesus after his walking on water, saving Peter and calming the wind in 14:33.[2] This linkage is made stronger by the similar appeal made by this woman to Peter’s appeal in that scene.[3] This woman has by her actions placed herself in the position of Peter and the rest of the disciples in both worshipping Jesus and appealing directly to him for aid.

Jesus’ direct response to the woman often receives the most attention in this section and while we may want to jump to a transformed world there “there is no Jew or Greek or Canaanite, male or female” to modify slightly Galatians 3:26, Jesus, his disciples, and the early church all operated in a world of boundaries and barriers. But in his previous encounter with a Gentile asking for aid, who also addressed him as lord, Jesus also challenged that petitioner about the rightness of his request. In Matthew 8:7 when the Centurion comes and appeals on behalf of his child, Jesus responds “Am I to come and cure him?”[4] Jesus issues a challenge based on these boundaries between the lost sheep of Israel and the Gentiles. Jesus has come to the children, and while the children perhaps have been invited to cast some of the bread on the floor is that Jesus’ role? Again, those commenting on this passage can become caught in the parable with children and dogs and the perceived insult to this woman. It may well be that Jesus is playing on a common trope of the Gentiles being dogs, but this parable or challenge also provides a way for the woman to reimagine a way forward that perhaps the disciples have missed.

There is another parable told in Luke’s gospel where Jesus uses dogs as a character in a parable or image, and that is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I bring this parable up because I think it can shed some light on our scene. The dogs in Luke’s parable lick the sores of Lazarus as he lays at the gate of the rich man. Amy Jill-Levine in relation to this parable can state helpfully:

Dogs are not a source of uncleanness—that is not the image Jesus’ audience would take from the description of Lazarus. Rather, they would realize the dogs provided him with his only comfort. The dogs realized what the rich man did not—that people in pain need help. (Levine, 2014, p. 281)

There are numerous examples professor Levine lists in Deuterocanonical literature and the Mishnah of dogs owned by Jewish households as pets, and it is helpful to realize that Jesus also uses that illustration here. The dogs mentioned are not invaders to the household but are the dogs of the lord of the household. The challenge provides the key for the faithful one to reimagine the household of faith in a new way, the parable’s openness to interpretation allows for the children of Israel’s bread to feed the Gentiles.

Unlike the disciples, the little faith ones, who often have to ask Jesus to clarify the interpretation of the parables to them; this woman of great faith is not only able to understand but to recast the parable. She sees the key and opens the vast storehouse of treasure or the door to the great feast where many measures of flour have prepared a great feast and she is only asking for that which falls to the floor. To heal her daughter is no great thing in the abundance of the kingdom of heaven, and to release her daughter is no more than crumbs falling from the table of her lord.

Matthew’s gospel makes note of the woman’s faith as great (a feature unique to Matthew’s narration of this scene). Only two people in Matthew’s gospel are lifted up for faith that is extraordinary, and both are Gentiles, the centurion and the Canaanite. They have a greater openness to the potential for healing in the presence of God’s reign in Jesus, even though they are not a part of the children of Israel. Yet, Matthew’s gospel began with a genealogy which highlighted non-Israelite women making a place for themselves in the people of God, with magi observing in the heavens a star which led them to seek out and worship the child Jesus, and now these two of extraordinary faith who see the healing of their children as a minor matter for one who exercises God’s power over demons and sickness. Perhaps it is the imperative to seek healing for one’s own child which makes hoping for the incredible seem possible. Perhaps it is simply an openness to the ways that God is at work in this person of Jesus and the community around him. Perhaps it is that they are able to make sense of who Jesus is through their own experience of the world. Yet, they are those who see and understand and make a place for themselves and others at the banquet of the Lord. As Jesus could say after granting the centurion’s request, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (8:11)

[1] As mentioned the previous time that the disciples told Jesus to ‘release’ someone (the crowds) Jesus invited them to be the solution by feeding them.

[2] Matthew other uses of proskuneo (to prostrate, worship)include The Magi ‘paying homage’ 2:2, 8, 11; the women and disciples at the resurrection worshipping Jesus 28: 9, 17 and the temptation narrative where ultimately instead of worshipping Satan, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13 where one is to worship the Lord only.

[3] Peter in 14:30 cries out “Lord, save me!” and the woman cries out, appropriate to her situation, “Lord, come the aid of me!”

[4] NRSV and most English translations miss that the Greek syntax indicates a question and the centurion’s answer takes the boundary and creatively creates a new possibility for faithful action.

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4 Responses to Matthew 15: 21-28 Woman Great is Your Faith

  1. Pingback: Matthew 15: 29-39 To Know Christ is to Know His Benefits part 2 | Sign of the Rose

  2. Thank, you very helpful, particularly your comment on the meaning of apoluso and the place of dogs in the household.

  3. Pingback: Matthew 20: 29-34 Opening Eyes on the Way to Jerusalem | Sign of the Rose

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