Today in the Gospel readings, we heard about the story of Jesus healing the daughter of the Canaanite woman from Matthew 15:21-28. The text of the Gospel reads:
At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon." But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus' disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us." He said in reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, "Lord, help me." He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters." Then Jesus said to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.
It is unfortunate that in the wake of the Charlottesville violence we have to endure more violence - violence to the text from pastors whom I'm sure are taking this story about Jesus encountering a person outside His own ethnic group and making it a story about racial harmony. I guess such an interpretation certainly fits with the zeitgeist, but I don't think that's what this story is really about. Just because Jesus talks to a foreigner doesn't mean this story is about racial harmony.
Not that the fact that the woman is a Canaanite is inconsequential; it's actually central to the meaning of the story, but I am wryly amused that people can often find no other way to understand this apart from contemporary paradigms about ethnicity and inclusion.
Let's dig in to what's going on here.
This story has a lot in common with another tale in the Gospel of Luke - the healing of the centurion's servant:
After he had ended all his sayings in the hearing of the people he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a slave who was dear to him, who was sick and at the point of death. When he heard of Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his slave. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue.” And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave well (Luke 7:1-10).
The two stories have three things in common:
1) The one petitioning Jesus is a Gentile
2) Both the Canaanite woman and the centurion use an analogy to make their case
3) Jesus marvels at the faith of each before granting their requests
In the tale of the centurion's servant, the centurion is no less a Gentile than the Canaanite woman, yet nobody makes this story about racial harmony. That's because it is so clearly about faith. The centurion uses an analogy of military command and authority to demonstrate his faith in Christ's ability to affect a cure by merely pronouncing the words. This is very clearly about the nature of faith.
This Gentile, who was not part of God's covenant with Israel, has a more authentic understanding of faith than the Jews. "Not even in Israel have I found such faith!" This is really the heart of the story. Contrasting the disposition for faith found in the Gentiles with the kind of hard-hearted unbelief of the Jewish community. This story both prefigures the inclusion of the Gentiles into the New Covenant, as well as incites the Jews to envy by casting the Gentiles as a foil.
I have two other places in Scripture I can cite in defense of this. First, Acts 13, where St. Paul and Barnabas are preaching in Pisidia. Notice how the faith of the Gentiles is contrasted with the unbelief of the Jews, and how this arouses the Jews to envy when St. Paul mentions it:
The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with jealousy, and contradicted what was spoken by Paul, and reviled him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles, for so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth.’” And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of God; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord spread throughout all the region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. (13:44-51).
St. Paul publicly praises the faith of the Gentiles, which incites the Jews to envy. This is the same thing Jesus does when He praises the faith of the centurion and says "Not even in Israel have I found such faith!"
But more pertinent to the discussion of the Canaanite woman is my second text, which comes from St. Paul's epistle to the Romans, where he basically spells out the strategy I have explained above and says that provoking the Jews to jealousy is a means of saving at least some of them:
I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? (Rom. 11:13-15)
The "ministry" St. Paul is glorying in is his apostolate to the Gentiles. He says specifically that he magnifies the successes of his work among the Gentiles "in order to make my race jealous", with the end result of hopefully bringing some of them to faith.
If this verse sounds familiar, it is because it is paired with the story of the Canaanite woman in the liturgy; you heard this passage at Mass today alongside the story of the Canaanite woman. This tells us that the Church would like us to interpret the story of the Canaanite woman in light of St. Paul's teaching in Romans 11.
What are we left with then? What is actually going on in the story of the Canaanite woman?
Jesus' ministry was initially to the Jews; He left ministry to the Gentiles for the Apostles after the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is why He initially refuses the Canaanite woman's request for a healing. This is the meaning of His comment, "It is not right to take the little children's bread and throw it to the dogs."
However, like the centurion, the Canaanite woman grasps the true nature of faith. She responds "Even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from the master's table." This is what causes Jesus to marvel at her faith and grant her request. The "bread" referenced by our Lord is like the grace of God. Sanctifying grace had hitherto only been made available to the Israelites through the Old Covenant. Jesus essentially tells the Canaanite woman, "The special graces of the Old Covenant are not yet available to the Gentiles, only the faithful of Israel." The woman responds that even foreigners eat the scraps of bread from the Master's table. The substance of her response is, "Even the common graces available to all mankind are sufficient for me, lowly as I am, to understand my utter dependence upon my Creator. The smallest of things depend on God just as much as the greatest." Jesus marvels at the woman's intuitive understanding of her dependence on God's goodness. Moved by her great faith, He grants her request.
Thus, the story is really about the nature of faith and how pleasing faith is to God. It's just that the Canaanite woman's metaphor takes a little more thought to unpack than the one used by the centurion, but they are both essentially the same message.
We could also cite an event from Luke 4. In Luke 4, Jesus is preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum; this is the famous episode where Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and identifies Himself as the Messiah. When He sees that His detractors want Him to perform a miracle to back up His claims, He says:
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here also in your own country.’” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city" (Luke 4:23-29).
Here our Lord refers to the days of the prophets Elijah and Elisha and contrasts the unbelief of Israel with the faith of the Gentiles, who were granted miracles. This is the exact same context as the healing of the centurion's servant and the daughter of the Canaanite. It should also be noted that Mark 7:24 said that the episode with the Canaanite woman occurred "in the region of Tyre and Sidon"; in other words, the Canaanite woman was most likely a Sidonian, just as the widow of Zarephath Jesus references in the Gospel of Luke. This further reinforces the interpretation I am proposing.
The Old Testament law was particular to the biological children of Israel. But the rule of faith is greater than the law. It is before Moses (St. Paul traces it to Abraham in Romans 4) and has the capacity to be universal. That's why the faith of the Church is catholic. Just as the prophecies of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Old Testament foreshadow this, so do Jesus' healings of the centurion's servant and the Canaanite woman's daughter. This foreshadowing is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost.
Thus, the healing of the Canaanite's daughter is about the nature of faith, the universality of God's covenant, and how pleased God is with the humble, childlike faith of His people.
One final note: People often comment on how "mean" Jesus is to the Canaanite woman. "He calls her a dog!" they say. How demeaning! Is it racist? Is it sexist? Is it both? How rude!
This is a reflection more of the mindset of modern people than of any rudeness in the behavior of our Lord. When our Lord uses a metaphor of a dog, people cannot but assume our Lord is calling the woman a dog. However, this is more about the way eastern cultures talk. In the Middle East, there is a very common manner of speech whereby the speaker uses a metaphor to make a point. We do this in the west too, obviously, but in the east it is much more common. Entire conversations may be carried out this way, and the prevalence of metaphor increases to the degree that the conversation becomes more delicate.
This is very common in Semitic, Bedouin, and Arabic cultures. I recall one time years ago reading the authorized biography of Lawrence of Arabia by Jeremy Wilson. The book describes in fascinating detail how T.E. Lawrence often worked out his tactics with his Arab allies. Sometimes, the entire discussion would take place in metaphor. Lawrence might propose striking an Ottoman railroad at a certain point, and the Arab sheikh would smile and say "Ah! The snake bites the horses heel!" or something similar. The book describes how frustrating it could get when complex arrangements had to be hammered out.
The thing is though, the sheikh was not actually insinuating that the Arab armies possessed the characteristics of snakes. Yes, there was a metaphor. But it wasn't exactly a simile, which is making a positive affirmation that one thing is like something else. Simile is a more refined type of metaphor. Jesus was not saying that the Canaanite woman has the negative characteristics of a dog - cringing, smelly, animalistic, etc. Rather, in typical Semitic fashion, he was using a colorful metaphor, the purpose of which was to explain a complex idea simply. And the Canaanite woman understands. She doesn't miss a beat. She's ready with the proper metaphorical response.
Jesus does a similar thing when He says "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head" (Luke 9:58). He's not suggesting any character similarities between Himself and stereotypical foxes or birds. He's just using a colorful analogy to draw attention to His itinerancy without meaning the parallel to be taken in any moral sense. Not every metaphor Jesus uses is like this, but I think this example of the Canaanite woman certainly is. He's not making any sort of moral judgment about her. He's merely engaging in some colorful Middle Eastern metaphor.
Yes, Jesus is willing to do a miracle for the Canaanite woman even though she is not an Israelite. But it was because of the nature of her faith, not because Jesus wanted to teach us a lesson about ethic harmony and racial inclusiveness.