Have you ever experienced rejection, or felt ignored, overlooked, or excluded? I bet that the gospel story we just read resonated quite readily with the experiences of nearly everyone of us. As for me, on a personal level -- as a woman, mother, and immigrant -- I find this story to be particularly emotionally charged. It is one thing to beg for something for yourself, and quite another -- for your child. It is one thing to recognize that not all our desires will be fulfilled in this life, but it is quite another to realize that what is holding you back is only your gender and/or background. And finally, it is one thing to accept that in this broken world, inequality abounds, and rich people’s pets may be fed before the poor people’s children; but quite another -- to feel ignored by God him/herself.
The Syrophenician (that is, Canaanite) woman comes to Jesus out of desperation, and begs him to cure her disturbingly, mysteriously ill child. Jesus calls her a “dog” who has no right to be fed before a child. The woman accepts the apparent insult without a refutation, as she must have done countless times in her life. Yet, she persists, as “even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus suddenly seems to have a change of heart, and heals her daughter. Why doesn’t he do so immediately, and what is it in her reply that makes him change his mind (does God ever change his mind)? These questions arise for me, as I empathize with this mother -- an outsider, and the ill child -- an innocent victim in a world made so complicated by us adults.
The Canaanite woman obviously knows enough about Christ as a miracle worker, but does she initially consider him merely a new shaman of the gods of her culture? Even so, by the end of their exchange, she demonstrates the radically new assurance that the mercy of the one true God of Jesus’ teachings extends to all people, even those dwelling on the margins of mainstream society. And, as soon as she “gets it”, Jesus responds! The woman certainly had much to learn from this exchange, but I would argue that in doing so, she also facilitated significant learning for the great Rabbi.
Jesus’ prejudice is hardly surprising though, given the mutual history of the Israelites and Cannanites. The Jewish forefather Abraham had traveled from Ur to Canaan, from which his 11 great grandchildren then moved to Egypt to escape famine (Joseph was serendipitously already there, an advisor to the Pharaoh!). Do you think at this point the family was markedly different from their semi-nomadic neighbours of the surrounding plains and valleys? Several generations later, they returned; and at this point, they manifested not only a manyfold increase in their numbers, but also the new, monotheistic religion. They returned to inflict genocide, to be sure, but also to coexist and intermarry, and to be forever caught in a cycle of repentance and re-embracing the practices now “foreign” to them -- or rather forgotten, and poorly at that -- no doubt accusing the Canaanites of leading them into idolatry (just as for generations, men would accuse women of seducing them into illicit relationships).
Knowing this background, we can see that Jesus’ hesitation to help this woman was quite possibly motivated by the need to protect his own reputation as a rabbi. What should we make of his apparent change of mind? Was Jesus simply being human, or planned it all along to create a teaching moment? To me, the latter seems worse: cold and calculating, manipulative and lacking compassion. I prefer to think that his perspective did truly evolve over the first half of the exchange, and then he used the reference to the dogs to illustrate the understanding that he had gained.
For it is, of course, the canine metaphor that upsets us the most in this exchange; but it doesn’t have to. Abundant archaeological evidence points to the wide use and enjoyment of dogs for service and companionship in Canaanite, Israelite, and surrounding societies. To Jesus and his people, not all dogs were vile, and they even bred an idigenous dog called the Canaan Shepherd. There were, however, also the dangerous and detestable feral dogs, which roamed the countryside. In Jesus’ lexicon, there would have been two separate words for these two kinds of dogs, and the one he applies here is the one for the loyal and cherished household members, albeit valued a step below the children. Might his use of the term for a specifically domestic dog refer to the taming of our heart’s desires, and its subsequent feeding from the God’s table in prayer and communion?
I think so, as does the mother in this narrative symbolize our spirit, who intercedes for the salvation and healing of our heart and soul, body and mind, and for its freedom of evil. The spirit’s indwelling is quite independent of the intellectual faith, which as children we don’t yet have, the people with disabilities may never achieve, and the rest of us cultivate through maturation, education, and mentorship. Nonetheless, the spirit begins her “negotiations” with God well before we are fully aware of it, and the heart persists in learning: in petitioning for more than our mind can “ask or imagine'' - even in the face of what seems to be God’s rejections of our prayers (or I should say, of our desired outcomes!).
The Canaanite woman and her ancestors were born into a broken society, there’s no denying that; yet, it was the one they shared with the forefathers of Judaism. This meant that the Israelites, while not inherently superior as people, were nonetheless capable of turning away from systemic evil, with God’s help. It was, to be sure, a difficult, cyclical path with many setbacks -- the one that we are each walking now, over the course of our own lives. What is it that enables us to hear a small voice in our hearts that begins to hint that the system is wrong? What are some tempting practices we have that we know full well to be destructive, but allow our hearts to be seduced by? What injustices do we tolerate or perpetrate? Those are all matters for personal discernment that take a lifetime of persistent faith and conversation with God. What matters is that even when we haven’t fully arrived (and few ever do!), we keep continually reevaluating our prejudices and ingrained beliefs, as Jesus did, in order to see all people as individuals of equal standing in God’s eyes. Amen.