Cananite woman

The Canaanite Woman The Role of Women in the Church

The Canaanite – Syro-Phoenician Woman (Matt. 15:22-28; Mk 7;24-30)

This story, with slightly different dialogue, is found in both Matthew and Mark’s Gospel.  Though a very short event in both gospels, it is a profound story when delved into. Both accounts stir our emotions – tending to make us a little angry at Jesus and the apostles – especially when we focus only on the surface of the story.  We tend to be very correct, and as a result very sterile in our western verbal interaction, and so take offence easily.  On the human, emotive level, it would be to our benefit to have a little Mediterranean volatility.   Of course all this is on a very human – emotive level.  But if we remember that our humanity is also divine, then we can begin to see this episode in another, deeper dimension that leads to challenges in the life of our communal faith within the Church.

A very human reaction to the interaction of the woman with Jesus, before he ever responds to her, is the reaction of the disciples.  They are very aware of their own discomfort at her presence, and not of her need. They cannot perceive what is really taking place. She, in her distraught concern for her daughter is an embarrassment to them.  They are also annoyed at Jesus for not responding to her immediately, even if that meant sending her away. She is, in their eyes, creating a scene.  And, so she is!  But, the unseen, internal stage is the much more dramatic stage, which in the end, produces much more than an Oscar.

If the Gospel account is broken down step by step, using Matthew’s account, we will become challenged in our own prayer life – that is when praying in petition. First it is important to look at what the woman says to Jesus.  She appears to not even notice the crowd, or the uncomfortable disciples.  Her eyes, the eyes of her heart, her inner attention is focused on her need and upon the person of Jesus.  We would have to assume that she doesn’t even care what anybody thinks – for that matter even what Jesus might think. She is like many of the Old Testament prophets who do not mind telling God what they think! She has only one thing on her heart, and it possesses her whole being.  Now, that is undistracted prayer in the midst of noise and confusion!  So much for a quiet, secluded, personal place in which to pray! It is important to remember when we hear her words, that she is a pagan on Jewish terrain.  But, she certainly knows something about the Jewish faith and its promises for a messiah.  She actually truly knows, that is, she has a knowledge that possesses her whole being, that Jesus is the promised Messiah!  She is convicted of more than the Jewish leaders, and the apostles, and is willing to publically acclaim it!  Even if she is creating a scene and is ridiculed! “Lord! Son of David, take pity on me!”  (Matt 15:23)

And now we come to the next important element in the story.  Notice that the woman says: “Take pity on me!”  But, we know from the story that she is driven to this pleading because her daughter is “possessed by a devil” which are her next words.  This is a prayer of petition.  She does not say ‘have pity on my daughter’ but “have pity on me”. She is teaching us, that when we pray for someone it is important to so identify with them, that we are one with them.  That is what Jesus prayed at the Last Supper- that we would be one.  This same insistence is seen in the story of the man whose friend comes to him at midnight. He went and pleaded to another friend to get up and give him some bread for his visiting friend.(Lk11:9-13). He did not care that it was midnight, he did not care that he was causing a commotion. Jesus prayed for us by taking our sins upon himself in blood, sweat and tears upon the cross. So to appeal for someone in prayer is more than reciting a prayer for them.  It is to so identify with them that they become one with us.  Like the men that carried the paralytic to the roof and lowered him to Jesus, so must be our oneness with the person on whose behalf we are petitioning. ‘Lord, have pity on me, my friend is suffering.’ His, or her suffering is my suffering, is our suffering.

Jesus is silent.  He does not respond to her pleading.  The Father does not respond to Jesus on the cross as he cries out Ps. 22, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me”(Matt. 27:47).  Jesus did not stop in his praying, but, in his act of dying, his whole being prayed – “Father, forgive them they do not know what they are doing!” (Lk 23:34)  And we are living witnesses by our faith that he was heard, as he carried us on the cross!  The woman did not stop when there was no reply from Jesus.  It is as if the silence was drawing her forth.  There is no crowd for her.  There is only Jesus and her. She must have had some awareness that the followers of Jesus wanted to see the last of her.  His followers even pleaded – “just give her what she wants” (Matt 15:24).  They had no idea of the inner journey of faith she was walking.  After all, by her actions, she had already professed publically more faith than them. Jesus is drawing her on. They, Jesus and the woman, in the midst of commotion are in a dialogue!  This is prayer. He acknowledges her claim that he is “Lord, son of David” by stating that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matt 15:25).  They both know that she is a stranger.  But something else is happening here.  The woman’s conviction that this man is the Son of David is proven true by Jesus’ response, and she is profoundly moved.  She bows ‘low’ to him.  She is a Canaanite.  Canaan was the ‘promised land’ – promised to the great man of faith, Abraham – and she a gentile, a pagan, is not lost like the sheep of the House of Israel, but is in deep conversation with the Redeemer, in the Promised Land!  How amazing is the work of the Lord!

She pleads with him for her daughter, as Abraham pleaded for Sodom and Gomorrah.  “Lord, help me!”  Jesus is honing her faith.  She is being purified.  Her faith is being deepened.  How deep is her faith?  Is this just a onetime pleading for her daughter?  Or is this non-Jew, this gentile, gentiles considered by the Jews as “dogs”, truly a woman of faith. So Jesus presents it to her directly using the diminutive form of “dog”, a term for non-Jews that she would know. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the little dogs.”  She rises to the occasion, not insulted, but recognizing the truth of what he has said.  In the bravery of faith she takes his statement and gives it right back to him using exactly his words!  How wonderful!  “Ah, yes Lord!  But even the little dogs eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table!”  So, in our vernacular she is saying – “How about some scraps!”  Jesus is moved.  He is always moved by faith.  He is always moved by sincerity of heart, openness and honesty.  He gives her great praise.  He calls her “woman” a title of respect that he used for his mother. “Woman, you have great faith.”  When talking about his mother he said “Blessed is she who hears the word of God and keeps it.”(Lk 11:28) This woman has done just that, in the midst of great turmoil.  Through Mary’s faith God becomes man, and in the anguish of her faith she joins him in freeing us from the grip of Satan.  Through this woman’s faith that grew through anguish, her daughter is freed from a demon, thus experiencing new life. We don’t know how the disciples responded to this event.  But, we do know that their faith was to be tested in much anguish in the days to come. They were to learn much about persevering in faith even to the point of death.  Where will our faith take us?  Where will my faith take me?  How do I carry someone in prayer?

This woman, sadly unnamed, but one of the great women of scripture none the less, not only taught us how to carry someone in prayer, she also taught us to be bold, fearless in publically expressing our faith.  She, by her example, is proclaiming the power of converts to Christianity.  They disturb the comfortableness of those of us born into the faith.

When we look at this Canaanite Woman it would be good to look at her in conjunction with other women that Jesus encountered in his life. In her open, direct and simple faith, she along with these other women, has much to tell us about the importance of women in his church.  When we look at the Woman at the Well, the woman who found the coin, the women who followed Jesus on his journeys, the woman who washed Jesus’ feet, the woman who put her last coin in the treasury, Mary Magdalene, the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’  garment, Martha and Mary, Elizabeth, the women who wept for Jesus as he carried his cross, and the women who joined the first woman of faith, Mary the Mother of Jesus,  at the foot of the Cross – we need not get side tracked by demanding woman priests.  Jesus, in his life on earth well defined the role of woman in his Church and her profound impact within the community of faith.  We would do well to meditate on each of these passages mentioned above. The role of woman in the church, as with the Canaanite woman, has much to do with proclaiming the faith, giving it life, both in prayer, in word and in deed. They taught by word and example. Certainly the disciples were challenged in their ingrained attitude about women.  And this Canaanite woman was not to be put off by them.  She actually had something to teach them about prayer and proclaimed faith.

There is something these women have in common.  They all knew anguish.  They knew the faith deep within the recesses of their beings. They all had suffered in the depth of their faith. They are the heart and soul of the faith. When one looks at these women that Jesus encountered we find that their interaction with him took seed within them, germinating into new life.  They pondered – they listened, with their hearts, to what they had seen and heard – what had happened to them, and then proclaimed it.  Something must have happened within the soul of this Canaanite woman.  She must have pondered, listened intently to the murmurings within to have known that Jesus was the “Son of David”.  This time of gesticulation brought forth faith in action.  As with all the other women Jesus encountered, so too with the Canaanite Woman – their proclamation was always a source of new life for those who witnessed them. “Scraps” can make a wonderful meal!

In their pondering, in their unabashed love they profoundly teach, directing to Jesus. Jesus was not afraid to use them to announce the ‘good news’ in words and in actions. They are the mothers within Mother Church.   They are the mothers, taking the seeds of faith and giving forth renewed life within ‘Mother Church’, nurturing it day in and day out – aloud and in silent tears.  And when the women of the church cry out in word and deed, as the Canaanite woman did, totally identifying with her daughter, – “Lord, have pity on me!” – the ‘me’ these women carry deep within is the Church. They prod the Church, carry it from the purely external aspects of the faith that often possess it, to the internal, to its heart and soul – always initiating new – renewed life.

Jesus is the Word. He says to the Canaanite woman – “Woman, your faith is great!”

Jesus shared very deeply with women the essence of who he is.

Mary of Magdala said, “Rabbuni!”  …and to the disciples –  “ I have seen the Lord.” (Jn 20:16ff).  The Woman at the Well (Jn 4) in discussion with Jesus,  says “I know that Messiah, the Christ is coming … Jesus said, ‘That is who I am, I who speak to you”.  She tells the towns people – “Come and see.”  Martha said to Jesus, in John 11, “Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world”.  Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit says, ‘Why should I be blessed with a visit from the mother of my Lord!’” (Lk 1:42)  Through praying, listening, pondering, proclaiming  – the women of the Church with Mary, the mother of the Lord, say to the People of God – “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).

He is “Jesus, Son of David!”, “the Messiah”, “Rabbuni”, “the Christ, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world”.  “Come and See”!


August, 2013