October 8, 2012

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 5:22 am

I came across the following sermon, which I preached ten years ago, and did not remember having written. I think some might find it helpful.

Matthew 15:21-28

Canaanite WomanWe’re sometimes told that the basic message of the Bible is very simple, something that even a child can understand.  There is a certain truth to that way of looking at things.  After all, the Bible contains many stories, and stories are supposed to be easy to read, and easy to understand.  Think of the Christmas story.  Almost every church has a Christmas pageant in which children play the roles of Joseph and Mary, the baby Jesus, the shepherds and wise men, the angels, and sometimes even the sheep and donkey.  At the same time, even the Christmas story is not so simple as we sometimes think it is–preachers and theologians have been coming up with sermons and books about Christmas for two thousand years

But there are other passages in the Bible that are not at all simple, not at all easy to understand.  This morning’s gospel reading is a classic example.  This morning’s gospel reading contains one of the so-called “hard sayings” of Jesus.  If you read the gospels or even listen to the gospel lectionary readings on Sunday morning for any length of time, you will eventually encounter them.  To save your life, you have to take up your cross and follow Jesus.  Whoever does not hate his father or mother or even his own life cannot follow Jesus.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.  Let the dead bury their dead.

In this morning’s gospel, a mother comes to Jesus, desperate for help for her sick daughter.  Like any good mother, she cares for her daughter.  She has heard that Jesus has the power to heal, and she comes to him, begging for help.  He is probably her last resort.  No one else has been able to help.   Nothing else has worked.    Jesus responds to her request by calling her a dog.  That would be an insult in any language, in any culture, at any time, but in Jewish culture at that time, it was one of the worst insults that a Jew could think of to use for a Gentile.

How do we respond to such passages of scripture?  The simple approach is just to avoid them.  A smart preacher would preach on the OT reading this morning.  Or we might just not bother with the Bible at all.  I heard an older woman say recently  that she didn’t read the Bible anymore because it was full of contradictions.  There are a lot of people who are atheists because they have read passages like this in the Bible.  After all, how can we say that Jesus is the Son of God or that he never sinned when the Bible contains passages like this, where Jesus acts in a manner that seems unloving, even cruel?

I would suggest that this approach is too easy.  After all, the Jesus who calls a woman a dog in this morning’s gospel is the same Jesus who was born in the manger in Bethlehem, who welcomed little children, who healed countless numbers of people who came to him, who made himself the friend of sinners, like Zacchaeus the tax collector. What makes this passage a difficult passage is that it is uncharacteristic of Jesus’ usual behavior.   We don’t expect Jesus to be rude.  We don’t expect Jesus to refuse help.

I would suggest that this passage has some important things to say to us, but only if we don’t ignore it, and only if we don’t approach it in a simplistic way that says that Jesus would never do something like that.   If we read the passage carefully, with patience, and allow ourselves to be drawn into it step by step, we will find that it says important things about how a loving God helps us to grow in faith.

The first thing we need to realize is that the gospel writers included the passage for a reason.  They knew what they were doing, and they would not have included the story if they thought that it put Jesus in a bad light.  The story is included only in Mark’s gospel and in Matthew’s.  It is not in Luke’s gospel, although Luke includes many other stories that are in both Mark and Matthew.  So Mark and Matthew certainly could have omitted it, just like Luke did.  If they included it, it must be because they thought it has something important to say.

Second, we can get some clues about what is happening in the story if we look at other similar stories in the gospels.  There are other stories where people come to Jesus for healing.  There are other stories where women come to Jesus for healing.  The woman who comes to Jesus for healing in this story is not a Jew, but a Gentile, and there are other stories where Gentiles come to Jesus for healing.  What is generally interesting about these other stories is not simply that Jesus heals people–they are not just examples of miracles–but that by healing the kinds of people Jesus heals, he acts against the expectations of his culture in general.

So we know that Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, and people were scandalized by that because they thought it violated the biblical commandment against working on the Sabbath.  Jesus healed the Son of a Gentile centurion, which was unusual, because in Jesus’ time Jews did not have anything to do with Gentiles, and a Roman soldier normally would have been too proud to come to a Jew for help.  There is a story where Jesus healed a woman who was suffering from a hemorrhage, after which he raises from the dead the young daughter of a synagogue official.  What is interesting about both these two cases is that Jewish law had very strict rules about whom a person could touch.  By allowing himself to be touched by a woman who was suffering from a hemorrhage, or by touching someone who was dead, Jesus would have made himself ritually impure, unable to participate in temple worship until he was purified.  But surprisingly, not only does Jesus break the rules about temple purity, but he reverses the normal order of things.  When the unclean woman touches him, he is not made unclean.  Rather, she is cured, and so made ritually acceptable.  From from being defiled by touching a corpse, Jesus raises the young girl from the dead.

We have heard these stories so many times that we take them for granted.  We expect Jesus to listen to the request of the Gentile.  We expect Jesus to heal the woman.  But at the time when the gospels were written, these stories would have had a certain shock value.  Jesus behaved in ways that a good Jew was not supposed to behave.  He challenged people’s expectations about what it meant to be a good Jew.

In contrast, while we are shocked by this morning’s story, Jesus’ behavior would not have been shocking to people in his own world.  It would have been considered inappropriate for a woman, and particularly, a Gentile woman, to make such a request of a man who was a stranger to her, let alone a Jewish man.  We see the disciples  respond to her behavior in a manner that would have been perfectly understandable at the time.   The disciples think she is a nuisance, and they want Jesus to get rid of her:   “Send her away, for she is crying after us.”

What surprises us today is that Jesus responds in a way that would not have surprised the people at the time, but that does surprise us because it is contrary to what we have come to expect from Jesus.  We expect Jesus to break the rules, but this time he doesn’t.  Jesus, for once, does the conventional thing.  He does not immediately grant her request.  Rather, he at first ignores her.  When she persists, he lets her know that as a Jew, he does not have anything to do with Gentiles.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  When she still persists, he insults her.  “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  Why does Jesus act like this?

We can perhaps find a clue if we take into account that Jesus had two audiences in mind: one was the disciples, the other was the woman.  There are many stories in the gospels in which the disciples ask Jesus to act as an intermediary.   So in the story about the young boy with the loaves and the fishes, the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowds away.  How can such a large crowd be fed with only a handful of bread and some fish?  In another story, some women ask Jesus to bless their children, and the disciples try to send them away.  In another story, the disciples ask Jesus who will be first in the Kingdom of heaven. A common theme in these stories is that the disciples are clueless, that they just don’t understand what Jesus is all about.

But another theme that is common in these various stories is that Jesus does not always simply solve the problem right off the bat. He asks questions.  He forces people to think.  He challenges their faith.  So in the story of the loaves, when the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowd away, Jesus tells the disciples: “You give them something to eat.”  They then bring to him the five loaves and two fish, from which he feeds the crowd.  When they ask “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven,” he brings a small child and puts it in front of them. “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.”

In this morning’s gospel, we have another example where the disciples are just too thick to understand what Jesus is about.  By now, they should know that Jesus listens to the requests of women, even though Jewish men did not deal with unknown women.  They should know that Jesus responds to the request of Gentiles, although Jews and Gentiles did not mix in Jewish culture.  Still, the disciples do the typical disciple thing.  They ask Jesus to send the woman away.

Jesus’ second audience is the Canaanite woman.  As we know from other stories, Jesus does not always respond right away to those who ask him for help.  In John’s gospel, there are several of these stories.  There is the story of an official who asks Jesus to heal his sick son.  At first, Jesus says, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” but then he heals the son.  When Jesus’ mother asks Jesus to do something about the lack of wine at the wedding in Cana, he tells her that his time has not yet come.  Then he turns water into wine.  When Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well, he begins the conversation with a simple request for water.  It is only at the end of a long conversation that he offers her living water.

By at first refusing the woman’s request, Jesus addresses both audiences.   He tests the disciples, to find out whether they have really learned anything.  At the end, he does honor their request.  He sends her away, but not in the way they had wanted.  He sends her away by healing her daughter.  And he honors the woman’s request as well.  When she cleverly responds to his insult of calling her a dog by pointing out that even the dogs get the crumbs that fall under the table, Jesus not only heals her daughter, but gives her his highest compliment:  “O woman, great is your faith!” Scholars tells us that Jesus speaks this way about only one other person in the gospels, also a Gentile, the centurion whose son he healed.  In contrast, Jesus often complains to his disciples that their faith is too small.  Like the woman in Jesus’ parable of the unjust Judge, the Canaanite woman persists in her certainty that her request will eventually be heard, and her faith is rewarded.

What, if any conclusions, might we draw for today?  First, the disciples and the woman represent two groups of people who need to grow into faith, but in very different ways.  The disciples are examples of people who think of themselves as strong in faith.  They are certain of their status before God.  As Jews, they know they are part of God’s chosen people, and they know that, as a Gentile, this pesky woman is not.  They are sufficiently confident of their good standing with Jesus that they ask him to honor their request: Get rid of this woman who is bothering us.  Their faith can only grow by having its certainty challenged.  They need to become uncertain.  But in order for them to become uncertain, Jesus first has to honor their request, only later to show them that it was the wrong request all along.

The woman also needs to have her faith grow.  But the woman represents those who are weak in faith, those who are uncertain in their relationship with God.  She is a Gentile, not one of the chosen people.  And she also makes a request of Jesus.  In her case, Jesus at first appears to reject her request, only finally to have it granted.  He faith also needs to grow, but not by having it challenged.  Rather, it must grow more certain.  What at first appears to be a challenge to her faith, a refusal, turns out to be an answer to her request.  Because she refuses to give up in her belief that God will be good to her, God is eventually good to her.

Like the disciples, and like the Canaanite woman, our faith needs to grow.  Sometimes, we are the strong, those who are certain of ourselves, and certain of God’s ways in our lives, or the lives of others.  We need to have our faith challenged, to learn that God is full of surprises, that God does not always meet our expectations.  Sometimes God is more generous than our expectations.

Sometimes, we are the weak, fearing that God does not hear our prayers, that we are outcasts from God’s good graces.  We need to persevere, to allow our faith time to grow, to learn to know that God hears us, even when he seems distant, even when it seems our prayers are not answered.  We may then find that our requests, are after all, granted.

Whether we are the strong, or whether we are the weak, we need to have our faith grow, so that we can also hear Jesus speak those words, “Great is your faith.”

Finally, the passage also tells us something about how to read the Bible.  We may approach the Bible the same way that the disciples approached Jesus, assuming that we know already what it is all about. Then when we come across a passage that does not meet our expectations we may become impatient, wishing it would simply go away,  like the woman who told me she no longer reads the Bible because it is full of contradiction.  We need to learn to approach the Bible like the Canaanite woman approached Jesus, knowing the littleness of our faith, but desparate for the help only it can offer.  If at first we find the Bible seems deaf to our needs, we  persevere, hanging in there knowing that if we are patient, the Bible may challenge our expectations, will force our faith to grow, and finally, will reward us in ways we could not have conceived.


  1. Nice post. I learn something totally new and
    challenging on websites I stumbleupon everyday.

    It’s always interesting to read through articles from other writers and use something from their sites.

    Comment by Leia — April 25, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

  2. This was a very tough passage to swallow. Great job with this! I long to hear the Holy Spirit say, “Great is your faith!”

    Comment by Caleb — November 6, 2013 @ 1:03 am

  3. Fabulous sermon, simple to understand but profound in meaning!

    Comment by Sally — August 11, 2014 @ 7:32 pm

  4. The only thing I would ask: was not it the centurion’s servant rather than son who was healed?

    Comment by Emily — December 18, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

  5. Emily,

    Good question. There are two different versions of the story of the centurion. In the synoptic gospels, Matthew (8:5-13) and Luke (7:1-10) describe the story of the healing of a Centurion’s “servant.” A parallel story in John (4:46-54) tells the story of the healing of an official’s “son.” The stories are almost identical in terms of details, and, in both the synoptics and John, the event is described as having taken place in Capernaum, so this is almost certainly two different descriptions of the same incident.

    Why then do Matthew and Luke have “servant” while John has “son”? The most plausible explanation I have heard was from my Greek teacher when I was an undergraduate. The Greek words for servant (pais/παις) and son (huios/υιος) look very similar when written in Greek, especially if written by hand and abbreviated (when only the first and last letters would appear– πς or υς), which would sometimes happen when transcribers were trying to save space. In addition, pais can be translated either as “servant” or “child.” (Luke has the word doulos, which can only mean “slave,” but Matthew has pais.) At some point very early in the process of transcribing the story, a copyist read pais as huios, and “servant” or “child” became “son” in John’s version. That’s a plausible explanation, and it makes sense to me.

    Since I was referring to three parallel incidents in John’s gospel, I used John’s word (“son”) without bothering to mention that John has a different word from the synoptics here, which would have been an interesting side discussion, but would have distracted from the point of the sermon.

    Thanks for asking.

    Comment by William Witt — December 19, 2014 @ 10:00 pm

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