We all know parents who have or had a child with a disability, a chronic illness, or indeed a terminal illness. We know also that most of these parents would go to the ends of the earth to get whatever help they could for their child. These parents know that they must be persistent as they pursue their child’s welfare. Such a mother was the Canaanite woman. She was not afraid to approach this stranger, Jesus, break with cultural convention and plead for healing for her daughter.
This story is placed in Matthew’s gospel after a discussion about ritual cleanliness. Such things were problematic issues in the early community as we can see from other references to it throughout the New Testament. Jesus’ stand on the question was clear that it is what comes from the heart that determines whether one is clean or unclean.
But for those who might not have understood the point of the discussion, the story of the Canaanite woman added clarity. Jesus had withdrawn to the district of Tyre and Sidon, a non-Jewish territory. A woman described as a Canaanite approached him. She represented a group of people who were despised by the Jews and judged, according to their laws to be sinful and unclean. This ‘unclean’ woman took center stage in the drama.
She is portrayed as recognizing Jesus as the Son of David, a recognition lacking in most of his own people. She also came with something else. She came with a faith that this man could help her daughter. Her first request was met with silence from Jesus, and no doubt she knew the disciples wanted her sent away. It seemed to have been their approach to problems. Nevertheless, she waited around. Somehow she believed that she would get what she wanted.
Jesus made it clear that his mission was to his own people. The woman made it clear that there was plenty to go around, just as there was with the five loaves and two fish. Through her the mission was extended. She became instrumental in helping Jesus extend that mission, and in helping the community to come to a new understanding of its inclusive mission to all people.
This is not a story of a woman beseeching Jesus for help and receiving it because she had faith. This is a story that brings a challenge to our church today, just as it did to the early Christian community. We are not asked to ponder the strength of our faith through this story. Rather, we are asked to ponder our mission as church or community, and whether or not it has become exclusive. We are asked to listen to the challenge coming to us by those who have been pushed to the side, the ‘unclean’, those who are not allowed to fully participate. This is a great story to ponder when rules are made about who can approach the table, when theologians are scrutinized and silenced or disciplined for extending the thinking in the church. The disciples did not want to take heed of the Canaanite woman, nor did Jesus at first it appears. However, through dialogue with her, there was a change, and she was given the gift of healing that she sought, even though she might have appeared to be an outsider. Yes, it took a mother with the urgency of her child’s need to wedge open a world where all should have a place.
Elizabeth Ferguson, OP