Jesus, the Canaanite Woman, and Us: A few reflections on Matthew 15:21-28

I have always found something disturbing about Matthew 15:21-28.  This passage tells the story of the Canaanite woman that begs the Lord to heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon.

“And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.”  But he did not answer her a word.  And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying 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.”  And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you desire.”  And her daughter was healed instantly.” (RSV)

Most people tend to focus on Jesus’ rather harsh rebuke, when he refers to the woman as a dog.  As a Canaanite woman, no Jew would have interacted directly with her, and Jesus here indicates his first priority as the people of Israel, leaving it to his apostles, of course, to evangelize the gentile world after his resurrection.  But I tend to find something else about this passage very interesting.  When the woman cries out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David”, Matthew writes, “But he did not answer her a word.”

Why?  In fact, she tries again, and he rebukes her.  Only after her third entreaty does he relent and answer her request to heal her daughter.  Why the silence?  Throughout the Gospels Jesus interacts with other women in many different circumstances, of his own accord.  This did not exclude gentile women, either, as recounted in the Gospel of John when he talks to the Samaritan woman at the well.  So the simple fact that the woman was a Canaanite doesn’t fully explain Jesus’ silence.

Furthermore, how haunting is this simple, terse phrase, “But he did not answer her a word,” when we consider that it is Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity that has come to bring salvation to the world, that ignores her plea?  Do we imagine that God will ignore our prayers, especially for our children?  How would we feel if we thought that Jesus, full of love and truth, might simply choose not to listen to our most anguished cries?  When we think of Jesus, do we imagine this possibility?

I think the key to this passage is found in an earlier passage of Matthew, chapter 7:21-23.  There Jesus says, “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’”

Here Jesus emphasizes that it is not those who cry out to him, “Lord, Lord,” that shall be saved, but those who do the will of the Father.  Similarly, as with the Canaanite woman, not everyone who initially cries out to God for mercy will find it.  There might be a period of silence.  Why?  Because sometimes we cry out to the Lord in sheer desperation, no matter how far from him we might be, but with no real intention of staying with him when the desperation has passed.  Think of the Catholic who has rejected the Church and her teachings his entire life, but when faced with a life-threatening crisis, falls to his knees and prays to God for help.  Think of the man who has rejected “organized” religion and lived by his own rules, praying for help when someone close to him, his child perhaps, is seriously ill.  Or think of any agnostic, or atheist, or New Ager sending up prayers to God as a final act of hope that the Divine, whatever it might be, will intervene to help.  Are any of these hypothetical individuals actually asking God for help through faith?  Would any of them live any differently once the desperation has passed?  Perhaps, we can hope, some might.  Many certainly wouldn’t.

What Jesus shows by his silence, in other words, is that God is not a type of Santa Claus.  He isn’t a kindly old man that hands out gifts based on whether you’ve been naughty or nice.  What God wants is faith - a faith that does the will of the Father.  That’s why he doesn’t initially respond to the Canaanite woman.  In fact, he makes her ask three times before he replies, “O woman, great is your faith!”  Why three times?  Because repeating a request, or a command, multiple times emphasizes the importance of it.  Think of Jesus asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?”  Think of Peter’s denial of Jesus, three times.  By asking three times, by her persistence, the Canaanite woman is demonstrating her real faith in Christ.  Only then does Christ do what she asks!

Before I became a Catholic, God was a vague force that had no real impact on how I lived my life.  That didn’t stop me from praying to him if I wanted something badly enough, or if I was sick, or if someone close to me needed help.  It never really occurred to me that God might not be interested in listening to me if I had been ignoring him my whole life!  I could think that way because I had imagined a God in my image, not as he is.  At the time, I couldn’t even begin to understand how God might be different than what I assumed him to be.  Only faith, through grace, brought me toward the truth.

The letter of Saint James says, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”  Proverbs tells us that “The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.” Who are the righteous?  Not everyone who calls out, “Lord, Lord”, but those who through faith do the will of the Father.  Who are the wicked?  Well, those who don’t do the will of the Father, and those who don’t have faith.  That was me, before I became a Catholic, and I didn’t even realize it (not that I am righteous now, but at least I’m trying Lord!).

And so Jesus let a period of silence hang in the air between him and the Canaanite woman.  But the silence was also an invitation, an invitation to faith, which the woman accepted.  For those who truly turn toward God, he will not turn away.  Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”  So when we turn toward God with prayers in desperate times, may we hope that he will hear our voices as old friends, and not as distant strangers.

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