A Canaanite Woman and the Education of Jesus

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage:   Matthew 15:21-28    Date:  August 20, 2023

 The encounter of Jesus with a Canaanite woman surprises us because Jesus seems out of character in that he is rude to the woman and says that he didn’t come for people outside of the “house of Israel”.  Plus, there is a role reversal in that Jesus–the rabbi–comes the student and the Canaanite woman  plays to role of teacher, reminding Jesus that God’s love and healing power are available to all people.  

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’[f] 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 from that moment.

It’s that time of the year when teachers and students are gearing up to start another school year.  Some have already started.  Speaking of school, next month I’ll be going to California for my 50th HS reunion.  That makes me feel really old!

As I think back on my school years, one thing I remember is having a couple of friends in high school who were so smart that there were many times when they knew more than their teachers knew.  (Anybody else have friends like that?)

One of these friends was named Bill.  Bill was one of those guys who was in all the AP classes and got perfect scores on his SAT tests.  So we weren’t in many of the same classes, because he was a lot smarter than I was.  But I remember times when another student would ask a question, and the teacher would say,

“I’m not sure”.  And then Bill’s hand would shoot up and he’d say, I know the answer!”.   And sure enough, Bill would rattle off the answer.  It was like a role reversal where the student became the teacher and the teacher became the student.

Today’s scripture is a teacher-student role reversal of sorts.  You see, most of the time, Jesus was the teacher, the rabbi who taught his students, like his disciples and others who showed up when he preached and taught.

But in our story today it appears that Jesus got an education from someone else.  He became the learner, and a person you wouldn’t expect became his teacher.  This person was a woman who was a Gentile, a Canaanite to be specific.

This role reversal makes this story unique and surprising, and what also surprises us is that this story is not flattering to Jesus at all—he seems out of character by the way he treats this woman—in fact, he compares her to a dog!

I realize that in our society today, comparing someone to a dog might be a compliment.  We’ve all seen those pictures of dogs who look like their owners.

In American society, dogs and other pets can have near-human status.  Have you seen some of those bumper stickers that dog lovers have on their cars:

“If my dog doesn’t like you, neither will I”.  “My windows aren’t dirty—that’s my dog’s nose art.”  “My bloodhound is smarter than your honor student.”  

Or, related to last week’s sermon “My dogma ate your karma.”  (or my karma ran over your dogma, which is not very pet-friendly).

People can spend as much on dog food, pet-sitting, and vet bills as they do on human food, childcare, and their own health care.

But in Jesus’ world, dogs were way below humans.  So when Jesus used dogs as a metaphor for people like the Canaanite woman, it was a major insult.

To add injury to insult, in this passage we see Jesus first ignoring her completely, then saying that he came to serve his own Jewish people, not Gentiles like her.  So Jesus was downright mean to her.  We could say he was “throwing shade” at her.

The way Jesus acts here seems so out of character  that many Bible scholars, Sunday School teachers, and preachers have come up with a different explanation to justify why Jesus acted so rudely toward the Canaanite woman.

They say that Jesus was testing her faith to see how strong it was, how much she would persist in order to convince Jesus to heal her daughter.  That Jesus was using this as a “teachable moment”, to tear her down to bring her back up again.

Now on one hand, I like this interpretation because it saves face for Jesus and preserves this perfect image of Jesus, that he really isn’t as uncaring, rude, and condescending as he appears to be in this story.

But there’s a hole in this interpretation:  would Jesus actually play this kind of harsh “teachable moment” game with a person who was in such a desperate state as this mother whose child was possessed by a demon?

I can’t imagine any human, let alone Jesus, with an ounce of decency testing someone in such a vulnerable state, someone who was already so distraught.

So I wonder, maybe this story wasn’t a teachable moment for the Canaanite woman, but a teachable moment for Jesus.  Maybe she taught Jesus a lesson,   instead of the other way around.

The idea of Jesus being the student instead of the teacher is something that I want to push back on.  After all, if Jesus was really God in the flesh, he should be omniscient like God, he should already know everything, right?

You would think that Jesus would especially know that God’s love and healing power and salvation was for everyone, not just his own people, right?

But here in this story, at this point in time in Jesus’ life, maybe what we see is Jesus’ humanity more than his divinity.  Remember, he was both fully human as well as fully divine, a “God-man” as some theologians have called him.

As a human, maybe Jesus’ understanding of his mission is still somewhat limited.  He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…”

In other words, not to Gentiles like this Canaanite woman, who in the eyes of many Jewish people, were undeserving of God’s love and favor.

Now with a lot of people, the conversation between Jesus and the woman would’ve ended right there.  She would have turned around, taken her demon-possessed daughter’s hand, and behaved like people do when they go to a government office or a church for help, and get turned away.

They would have taken their daughter’s hand and say “let’s go home, sweetie.  I can’t take any more insults.  There’s no one here who wants to help us.”

But not this woman.  She refuses to take Jesus’ “no” for an answer. She was determined to get help from Jesus and she believed that God’s love was big enough to include her,  and that Jesus had the power to free her daughter from the demons that tormented her.

So she threw herself down and knelt at Jesus’ feet.  In fact, the word knelt here is the same word for worship, so in reality she worshipped Jesus.

And when Jesus told her that dogs can’t eat the food that is given to children, the woman comes right back at him and says, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Think of the courage and the determination of this Canaanite woman to raise her voice for her needs and her daughter’s needs.

Mothers can be pretty powerful advocates for the needs of their children.

I was talking with Addyson Garner recently, and she told me about an article that she wrote for a magazine that deals with helping working parents achieve a healthy work-life balance.

The article was specifically geared for parents who work remotely, which really took off during the pandemic, and how parents can advocate for their needs with their employers while working from home.

One thing Addyson highlighted was the importance of speaking up and being clear and direct with your employers about your needs.  For example, let them know what kind of schedule works best for you, based on your child’s nap schedule or school bus schedule.

Addyson quoted Brene Brown, who said “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.  Talking to people is kind; talking about them is unkind.”

Well, Addyson and Brene Brown would be proud of the the Canaanite woman.  Because she was definitely clear and direct with Jesus.  We could say that she was stubborn, in a good way because it was for the benefit of others and not just herself.

A woman named Jan Richardson wrote a poem about the Canaanite woman that I think captures so well her persistence, her grit, her courage and resolve: It’s called Stubborn Blessing:    

Stubborn Blessing

Don’t tell me no.  I have seen you feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill from your hands like water, like wine,
seen you with circles and circles of crowds pressed around you
and not one soul turned away.  Don’t start with me.

I am saying you can close the door but I will keep knocking.
You can go silent but I will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle but I will trace a bigger one around you,
around the life of my child who will tell you no one surpasses a mother
for stubbornness.

I am saying I know what you can do with crumbsand I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap you have up your sleeve.
Unclench your hand, your heart.
Let the scraps fall like manna, like mercy for the life of my child,
the life of the world.   Don’t you tell me no.

The Canaanite woman’s stubbornness on behalf of her daughter made all the difference to Jesus.  He saw her incredible faith and suddenly he had a change of heart.  Right then and there he healed her daughter from her demons.

We could put the Canaanite woman in the company of people like Abraham, Jacob, and Hannah in the Old Testament.  People who by their passion and persistence who were able to get God to change His mind.

Abraham pleads with God to spare Sodom from destruction, and God spares the town. (Genesis 18:16-33)

Jacob wrestles with an angel of God to get a blessing, and he gets that blessing.   (Genesis 32:22-32)

There is childless Hannah pleading with God for a child, and God gives her Samuel.   (1 Samuel 1)

We can be inspired by the faith of the Canaanite woman in this story, just like Jesus was.  In fact, Jesus wasn’t only inspired by her faith, he learned something new from her–they swapped roles and she was a teacher to this rabbi.

God used the Canaanite woman, this outsider, to either reveal more clearly to Jesus or at least remind him of the all-encompassing, far-reaching mission of God that Jesus himself was called to proclaim and carry out.

The purpose of the book of Matthew was to show how the good news spread first to those of the Jewish faith, and then crossed barriers to reach people who were Gentiles in every corner of the world.

And after Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, through the rest of the gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus fleshing out and living into his role as messenger of God’s all-inclusive mission:

For example, we see him telling the parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in order to find the one that was lost.

A little later, Jesus tells a parable of laborers in a vineyard which shows the extravagance of God’s generosity to people who others see are undeserving of God’s love.

And then later on, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a great banquet, where everyone is welcome to come to the table for an amazing feast of fine food.

I know, we think, wouldn’t Jesus have known this from the beginning 

But this story is a reminder that Jesus was human, and like us humans, Jesus was someone who was still learning, still growing, like the rest of us.

Let’s give Jesus a little credit here, though.  The disciples who were with him were so annoyed by the woman’s shouting that they wanted Jesus to just get rid of her, send her away. 

But Jesus hung in there with her, kept listening, kept interacting with her.  And in the end, he opened himself up to change his mind and embrace more fully his mission in the world.

That shows his humanity, and also a certain amount of humility as well, right?

So friends, let’s be more like Jesus—willing to learn new things, change our minds and our attitudes, willing to expand our understanding of God and the scope of God’s love.

Maybe this means making a conscious effort to be around people who are different from us, people who are treated like 2nd-class citizens like the Canaanite woman, people who aren’t afraid to ask us hard questions about faith and life.

And let’s be more like this woman—stubborn and not afraid to bring our needs before God and also to others who can help us and those we advocate for.

Even when we feel ignored or rejected, let’s not give up, but keep knocking, keep asking, keep seeking, like Jesus taught his disciples to pray, knowing that God’s love is wide enough to include and embrace every one of us.

As the song we’re about to sing says, “there is a love that binds the world together, a love that seeks the last, the lost, the least.  One day that love will bring us all together in Christ, from South and North, from West and East.”  AMEN.