Reading: Matthew 15:10-28
Let’s get something straight right off the bat: the Canaanite woman and her situation in Matthew 15 were never the issues; the disciples’ hearts were. In Matthew 15:10-20 Jesus taught them that, unlike the prevailing understanding at the time, being “clean” proceeded from one’s heart, not the religious leaders’ (often ridiculous) external “cleanliness” standards: “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles” (v18). I’m sure the disciples heard this and nodded their heads along thoughtfully (or self-righteously – looking at you, Peter), but when the theoretical met the practical, their continuing ignorance was betrayed.
In Matthew 15:21-28 we read about a Canaanite woman – female and Gentile, a double whammy in the Sucks To Be You In First Century Palestine Sweepstakes – who followed Jesus and his disciples, crying out for help. Not just any old help either, but help with a daughter afflicted with a demon. Perhaps sensing a teaching opportunity for the hapless band of apostles, Jesus ignored her cries. His disciples weren’t well pleased and asked him to dismiss her: this foreign, completely “other” person and her foreign and “other” problem.
The conversation that takes place between Jesus and this unnamed woman in v24-28 is fascinating. I’ve written before about my irritation with this particular passage; Jesus calling the Canaanite woman a racial epithet being a shitty thing to do under most circumstances. But I’ve since come to believe that he was saying what the disciples and probably even the woman herself expected him to: playing up to the self-righteous rabbi image. This image was apparently common enough that his frequent deviation from its model perplexed, offended and popularised him in turn, depending on the audience. In any case, like an actor – a hypocrite, something he was fond of accusing the religious leaders of – he recited some lines to affect his audience: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (v24, 26).
The woman surprised him with her ready answer: “Even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs that fall from the table” (v27). Isn’t it quite telling that she had such a ready answer and that it played so well into the first-century Jewish elitist sentiment we see so often in Jerusalem’s upper crust? There’s no record of the disciples’ reaction, but look, let’s be honest: they were probably shocked and offended, not being big fans of women breaking moulds and taking names.
Yet (I imagine) to their immense surprise, Jesus, going off-hypocrite-script, praised the Canaanite woman’s faith: “Woman, great is your faith!” This was a compliment Jesus reserved for a rare few. In praising her faith, Jesus also indirectly praised her resistance to the kind of “clean/unclean” mentality that stilted the disciples’ understanding of God. In daring to ask the (Jewish) man she called “Lord” to heal her daughter, she expressed greater faith than the Jewish men following Jesus. An outsider excelled over insiders, and intent triumphed over ritual religiosity. The Canaanite woman understood the parable she had never even heard.
That’s all fine and well, but how do we sermon this story? Preaching is sharing the good news – what’s the good news here? There are probably a few angles we could take. What “pits” (v14) are we falling into headlong because like the first-century disciples, we can’t make head or arse of faith versus works? We could ask who our personal, congregational or communal “Canaanite woman” is: someone crying out for Jesus, only to be chased off or shunned by us (Who do we think of when we think “impure”: prostitutes, criminals, people who are HIV+? Gay people, the poor, the marginalised? Supporters of opposing sports teams? You get the idea.) A specific question to ask would be what’s coming out of our hearts. What “defiles” us?
The central message, though, should be about the fact that neither Gentile nor Jew nor outsider or insider has to make due with “crumbs from the master’s table” (v27). Through our faith in Christ – an internal justification rather than an external reward – we each have full access to the bread of Christ’s body broken for us…and thus to his heart.