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This Sunday Musing is a guest post by Amy-Jill Levine, Mary Jane Werthan University Professor of Jewish Studies and University Professor of New Testament Studies, Emerita, at Vanderbilt University. She’s written great books about Jesus, commentaries, edited a version of the New Testament, and even published children’s books. Her brand-new Bible study is The Gospel of Mark: A Beginner’s Guide to the Good News (Abingdon, 2023). And next month, HarperOne will release her latest book on Jesus — Jesus for Everyone: Not Just Christians (you can pre-order it now!).
Yes, that’s right. Two books in two months!
I asked her to write on the Gospel text today — about a Canaanite woman and a healing — mostly because I’ve struggled with this particular story. It has always seemed to leave readers with unpleasant options of either disliking the woman or misunderstanding Jesus. And, of course, AJ doesn’t get stuck in the quagmire — but instead puts us on a path toward appreciating Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman anew with first-class biblical analysis.
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Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 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.” 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.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
"Sunday Musings" for August 20 — Matthew 15:21-28
A desperate Canaanite woman demands that Jesus exorcise her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus ignores her.
When his disciples urge, “loose her” (Greek: apoluo; Protestants often read “send her away”; Catholics often see intercessory prayer), he announces, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Kneeling before him, she pleads, “Help me.”
He responds, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
Holding her ground and turning his words back on him, she gains both his acknowledgment of her faith and the exorcism.
The text’s three prevailing interpretations are flawed. First, the suggestion that Jesus, with a twinkle in his eye, is testing the woman is not only offensive – one does not tease a desperate caregiver – and inconsistent with Matthew’s other healings. Nor is “little dog” a term of endearment. Jesus here grows in wisdom (Luke 2:52).
Second, commentators often position the woman, her daughter’s plight aside, as a victim by casting her as a poor, ostracized, marginalized, single parent. We know nothing about her social, economic, or marital status. The problem is an ailing child, not a sick society.
Third, and most pernicious, claims that Jews typically called gentiles dogs and therefore that Jesus learns to reject Jewish xenophobia proceed from ignorance and produce antisemitism. Jews did not commonly call gentiles “dogs,” although Christians including Jerome and Chrysostom hurled that insult at Jews. Jews welcomed gentiles to the Jerusalem Temple and to synagogues, and many anticipated that gentiles would worship Israel’s God (Isaiah 56:6-7).
Understanding the text within its literary and historical contexts offers three alternative readings that acknowledge Jesus’s hesitation, credit the woman’s agency, and avoid antisemitism.
First, the “Canaanite woman” recollects Matthew’s other Canaanite women, Tamar and Rahab.
Tamar, the Gospel’s first woman (Matthew 1:3), tricks her father-in-law Judah into thinking she is sex-worker; she takes his staff and signet as pledges for payment (see Genesis 38). When Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant and demands her execution, she produces the pledges. Judah acknowledges that she is the “more righteous” (Genesis 38:26).
Matthew next (1:5) mentions Rahab, the Canaanite sex-worker. When Joshua sends spies to Jericho, they enter her brothel (they were not doing reconnaissance). Rahab protects them and demands that when Jericho falls, they rescue her and her family. “She has lived in the midst of Israel to this day” (Joshua 6:25).
These two Canaanite women prove more righteous than the Israelite men they encounter. Their stories anticipate Matthew 15: another Canaanite woman will succeed in her goals; another Jewish man will respect her concerns and honor her wishes.
Second, Matthew 5:39 reads, “whoever strikes your right cheek, turn the other.” Jesus is describing a back-handed slap meant more to humiliate than to damage. Otherwise put: Jesus advises that disciples reject violent responses, absorb insults, retain their dignity, and hold their ground. The woman could have cursed; she could have despaired. Instead, she follows Jesus’s instruction.
Third, Matthew 15 follows a literary convention concerning desperate petitioners and unwilling benefactors. For example, Macrobius’s Saturnalia (2.4.27) describes a soldier who asked Augustus to testify for him in court. When the emperor offers to send a representative, the soldier, showing his scars, shouts, “When you were at Actium, I didn’t seek a substitute.” Macrobius concludes: “The Emperor blushed, and fearing to be thought both haughty and ungrateful, appeared in court.” The Talmud (b. Baba Batra 8a) describes how Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi opened his storehouse to other rabbis in the effort to preserve knowledge during a famine. Disguised, Rabbi Jonathan ben Amram demands food. When Rabbi Judah hesitates, Rabbi Jonathan insists, “Give me food, for even a dog and a raven are given food.” Rabbi Judah then opens his storehouses to all.
Matthew 15:21-28 assures caregivers that their efforts and exhaustion are seen. It reminds insiders that outsiders can be role models. It instructs petitioners to persevere nonviolently, hold their ground, and have faith in their abilities and the justice of their cause. It instructs leaders to attend to all in need. Finally, careful reading demonstrates that Christians do not need to make Judaism look bad to make Jesus look good.
You must hold your quiet center,
where you do what only you can do.
If others call you a maniac or a fool,
just let them wag their tongues.
If some praise your perseverance,
don't feel too happy about it—
only solitude is a lasting friend . . .
— Ha Jin, from a “A Center,” please read the entire poem HERE
She is a woman. A foreigner. A pagan. Unclean.
He belongs to the chosen people.
She has means, independence, and a crackling intelligence.
He is an illegitimate, itinerant rabbi.
She has a daughter possessed by a demon. She needs him.
He is on a purposeful but limited mission.
She is everything he most despises and fears.
He's in for a major breakthrough.
— Suzanne Guthrie