Homily 16th Aug 2020 - Canaanite woman

Naseby Group Zoom service: 16th August

Matt 15:21-28


“Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting 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.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matthew 15:21-28 NRSV)


Jesus and his disciples are taking a holiday. Because it’s Jesus, we’ll call it ‘a retreat’! OK, I maybe speculating a bit, but they are aboard - and by the sea - in the area of Tyre and Sidon – both coastal towns – with 20 miles of Mediterranean coastline stretching between them.

This area is in present-day Lebanon. We cannot but pause to think about and pray for the beleaguered people of that country in the aftermath of the hideous blast that shredded Beirut 2 weeks ago.

Anyway, Jesus and his disciples are away from the crowds and the endless stream of sick people. At least as far as the disciples are concerned, they are off-duty.

But evidently news about Jesus had spread beyond the Holy Land and a local woman spots him and sees the opportunity to secure help for her mentally ill daughter.

Significantly she is identified as a Canaanite – so she’s a descendent of peoples once resident in the land of Canaan and driven out by the ‘Children of Israel’. It was their ‘promised land’ to which they headed after the Exodus from Egypt. As you can imagine, there’s some difficult history lurking here.

Whatever, she is not easily put off. She is persistent. The disciples gang up to tell Jesus to send her away – to them she’s a pest.

Jesus hesitates. Jesus had a clear priority in his ministry. He has come first to Jewish people as their long-promised and much-anticipated Messiah.

Their reception of him has been mixed: Welcomed and respected by the poor and powerless but rejected by the overwhelming majority of the religious leaders. Perhaps his days at the Lebanese coast were indeed ‘a retreat’ from the constant barracking of the Pharisees with their endless attempts at ‘got-cha questions’.

In this moment we catch something of a transition. Jesus chooses to respond to the need before him. Then next he heads to the Gentile communities around the shores of Galilee. Here he feeds a crowd of 4000 in an episode very similar to the feeding of 5000 Jewish people (Ch 14). So she kneels before him, pleading for help.

In this age of identity politics … with our modern sensitivity to racially-charged language this exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is quite shocking.

First, there’s her choice of address. By calling him ‘Son of David’ she identifies him as descended from a Jewish king who had battled with the peoples remaining in the land of Canaan. His military record famously started with confronting Goliath – a Philistine – from one of those Canaanite peoples.

Explaining his hesitation, Jesus uses a common Jewish slur for Gentiles: “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs” he says.

Her come-back is witty: “ … even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.”

Racial undertones there might be, but there’s mutual respect evident in their banter. Moreover Jesus pronounces her daughter healed and it is done instantly.

Though the priority of his ministry was the Israelites, throughout he engaged with despised Samaritans, hated Romans – yes, and this Canaanite women - showing the same dignity and compassion that he showed to his own people.

Remember Jesus was there among the Trinity of the Godhead at the moment when they collectively said ‘Let us make human beings in our image’. This is the touchstone for our Christian worldview that all humanity shares the dignity of divine image bearers irrespective of the diversities that differentiate us.

So what can we take away from this episode?

1. As Jesus responded to this woman and the fear she had for the future of her child,
so he is ready to respond today to the cry from the mother who fears for the future of her child – and what mother doesn’t at some point?

2. When it came to people in distress Jesus was always available – even if he was on holiday!

As followers of Jesus, here lies a challenge to us. To be available to respond to the need of others, whoever they may be. 

Whoever, wherever, whatever, whenever - the need that we encounter is ours to respond to.

3. Jesus commends the Canaanite for her ‘great faith’. But where can we see the evidence for it?

In addressing Jesus as ‘Son of David’ she is adopting a phrase then used by Jewish people to identify their Messiah (or ‘Christ’ as it is in Greek).

It is in fact a profound confession of faith – equivalent to Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (That’s coming up in next week’s Gospel instalment!)

The identity at issue is not that of the woman but that of Jesus. Matthew’s narrative is leading us progressively onward to an ever clearer understanding of who Jesus really is.

Our standing before God is determined not by our race or heritage or any other aspect of our identity but by our response to Jesus.

God sees our faith evidenced – as was hers – by recognition of Jesus’ identity – as we receive the one sent to us by God – Jesus Christ - God’s son and our Saviour.