While Jesus is in the Gentile region of Tyre and Siden, a Canaanite woman approaches and cries out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus’ disciples ask him to send her away for she keeps crying out after them, “Lord, help me.” Jesus replies with the popular saying that it is not right to take the food of the children (Israelites) and throw it to the dogs (Gentiles). The woman replies that even dogs eat scraps that fall from the table of their masters. Jesus then says to her, “O woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” The woman’s daughter was healed at that very moment.
These days we are acutely aware of many conflicts in the Church, ranging from debates about liturgical texts to health care issues. Today’s gospel about the Canaanite woman’s encounter with Jesus reminds us that conflict is not something new in the Church. A major and often acrimonious conflict in the very first decades of the early Church was the issue of admitting Gentiles. Church authorities at least theoretically settled the question about the observance of the Mosaic Law by Gentile converts in the 50s (Acts 15 and Gal 2). Practically, however, conflicts continued both within the Church and with synagogue authorities even through the 80s when Matthew was composing his gospel.Even though issues of the Mosaic tradition like circumcision and dietary prohibitions no longer are sources of conflict, perhaps we can learn some useful things from the experience of those early years as we approach conflicts in the Church today. One thing seems evident: Jesus did not write a theological-canon law blueprint to resolve questions concerning the admission of Gentile converts into the Church.
What Matthew did in his gospel was to use various events in Jesus’ life to show that the theology concerning the Church’s universal mission of his time was in harmony with the intention of Jesus. Immediately before the episode with the Canaanite woman, Matthew tells us about the conflict between Jesus and authorities within his own Jewish community concerning various issues of the Mosaic tradition. In regard to dietary laws, Jesus argued that in respect to God’s law, it is not what goes into the mouth that counts, but what comes from the heart and out of the mouth that defiles a person. These are the things that exclude people from the messianic banquet, not unclean food. Here Jesus alerts us to the necessity of distinguishing between human and divine precepts.
The question of clean and unclean pales in significance when compared with the conflict that would erupt in the early Church about who would be included among God’s chosen people. In the climate of Jesus’ time, the Canaanite woman represented all the excluded. The Canaanites were the ancient enemies of Israel, and thus presumably of God. Now this woman begins to break through the impassable boundary that separated her from the Jewish man she sensed was a source of life. She goes into the public square (a male domain), and takes the initiative in addressing a man–not only a man, but Jesus as the Son of David. It is no surprise that the disciples begged Jesus to get rid of her.
Jesus acknowledged that his mission, indeed, was a restricted one–to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Even when she came and knelt before him, he reminded her of the popular saying about throwing the food of the children to dogs. When she said that even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table, he was moved to action by his own compassion and by her faith. Matthew used this event to authenticate the early Church’s universal mission. Everyone is invited to sit at the Master’s family table, sharing food as his own children. No one is to be excluded because of race or social class. Accepting the invitation by faith is what counts.
The event of the encounter with the Canaanite woman is also significant because it appears that through this experience Jesus’ own horizon was significantly expanded. Matthew makes a point of this to serve as a liberating model for his own community and for our Church today. We, like Jesus, must be open to change, and not be trapped in a rigid mind-set by repeating sayings that no longer represent what God wants. Further, we learn that persons whom God chooses to enlighten us are often like the Canaanite woman. We, like Jesus’ disciples, may think it best to get rid of them as quickly as possible. However, if we share Jesus’ compassion for people in need, we may discover a new thing that God expects of us today.
Campion P. Gavaler, OSB