August 20, 2017
Last’s week’s gospel ended with the disciples giving Jesus homage. They had witnessed Jesus walking on water, rescuing Peter from the raging sea, and finally calming the chaos of the mighty winds. When their boat finally landed at Gennesaret, the people recognized Jesus and they brought the sick for him to cure. The Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem questioned Jesus as to why his disciples did not respect the tradition of washing before meals. Jesus responded by questioning their breaking of the commands of God by excusing someone from the obligation to care for a parent if they would declare that the money needed was instead dedicated to God. Jesus quotes the great prophet Isaiah to support his case. Then Jesus publicly humiliates them by turning his attention to the crowd that had gathered and offering them an instruction about what it is that really defiles a person. His instruction is only one verse, “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.” (Matthew 15:11) The disciples approach Jesus to make him aware that he has offended the Pharisees and Scribes. Jesus disregards their concerns and continues calling them blind guides, and he goes on to explain his teaching on what it is that really defiles a person.
It is with that instruction on what truly defiles a person that Matthew begins his account of Jesus’ entrance to the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon, and then he has the encounter with the Canaanite woman that is the gospel text for this week.
Mark also recounts Jesus’ traveling to this region and his encounter with this woman. (Mark 7:24-30) In Mark’s account of the encounter, the woman is described as Syro-Phoenician, not a Canaanite. Mark’s account omits part of the dialogue that Matthew has included in verses 22-24. Mark does not include Jesus’ praise for the woman’s faith that Matthew includes in verse 28. But Mark includes a statement from Jesus that the children of Israel must be fed first. The difference in their accounts is that Mark adds to his account that the woman went home and found that her daughter had been healed. Scholars believe that Matthew had access to Mark’s gospel, and some believe he also had access to another older account as well.
If we focus on Matthew’s text, the first verse indicates that Jesus entered the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon without any indication that he was compelled to do so. His actions are a contradiction of his own instruction to the disciples when he sent them on their mission to the lost sheep of Israel. “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” (Matthew 10:5b) The understanding of the day viewed the border between Jewish and Gentile territory as being set by God, to separate God’s holy land, given to the people of Israel, from the pagan territory. The woman that Jesus encounters is described as a Canaanite. This description was rarely used at this point in history. It recalls the tribes that were occupying the land before the Jews gained control of the area. The Canaanites were one of the primary enemies of the Israelites. Besides being a pagan and one of the most hated enemies of God’s people, she was also an unescorted woman in a strictly gender divided society. All of these factors make Jesus’ contact with her a threat to his honor.
Jesus breaks with what was traditionally understood as sacred norms of behavior, enters the pagan lands, and encounters this mother whose daughter is possessed by a demon. She calls him “Son of David,” and asks that Jesus have pity and mercy on her. The request for mercy is a request to honor a debt that is owed. By calling Jesus “Son of David,” she is placing him in the line of King David and asking him to act according to David’s reputation of being a compassionate ruler. Even when she is ignored and insulted she continues to treat Jesus with respect and honor. Matthew does not tell us what is motivating the woman, but she seems to touch Jesus in a way that leads him to both cure the daughter and remark about the faith of the woman. There is no indication in the text that Jesus had gone there with the intention of extending the blessings of God’s healing to non-Jews. The opening part of the dialogue seems to indicate that he had no intention of doing so. Yet that is what happened.
Matthew’s account places more focus on the woman and the fact that she was a Canaanite, among the enemies of Israel, outside the covenant of Israel. As such, Jesus’ interaction with her is breaching serious boundaries. The catalyst for this encounter was the faith of this woman. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” What had been a barrier between Jesus and this woman has become the bridge connecting them.
- Do you recall an experience when you were called a name?
- Have you ever been the object of discrimination?
- Have you ever felt pressure to act with discrimination towards another?
- Why would Jesus even go into the region of Tyre and Sidon and risk such an encounter?
- Can you envision this scene as it unfolds? Where does it take place? Who is in the crowd? What is the mood of the crowd, of the disciples, of the woman, and of Jesus as the scene unfolds? What is your mood as the scene unfolds?
- What are some of the reasons that would justify Jesus’ initial response to this woman? Have you ever been asked to send away someone who was in need?
- What is it that connects Jesus and this woman?
- Have you ever felt like you were being ignored or sent away by God?
- Why would Matthew include this encounter in his gospel?
- How is God speaking to you in this text? How will you respond?
The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.