The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus that includes three Gentile women and the story of three Gentile Magi coming to pay homage to the Christ Child. The Gospel concludes with Jesus commissioning the twelve disciples “to make disciples of all nations.” How did the life and teaching of this Jewish man Jesus of Nazareth lead to this framing of the Gospel? The enigmatic story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman gives us a clue.
Two things about the story are perplexing: 1) Jesus’ harsh words to a person in need, and 2) Jesus losing a verbal exchange with another and apparently changing his point of view because of that exchange. We are troubled by these points because we usually assume that the divinity of the human Jesus requires that he was sinless and omniscient. I would argue that being fully human means that Jesus was not omniscient but had to learn life skills and develop his understanding of life just like any other human. The ludicrousness of the notion that Jesus knew everything about carpentry as an infant and Joseph couldn’t teach him anything should convince of that. Since sin is not essential to human nature, Jesus could have been sinless and still been fully human, but being fully human would mean that he was born participating in the mimetic matrix of his culture with both its salutary elements and its unsalutary ones. This story helps us explore how Jesus came to terms with a problematic aspect of his cultural inheritance.
Calling the woman a Canaanite was an anachronism that recalled Israel’s historical relationship with this people in much the same way that calling a contemporary Danish woman a Viking would invoke ten centuries of history for us. Jesus would have grown up absorbing his people’s tradition that the Canaanites were the worst of enemies. They were enemies to be exterminated by the likes of Joshua and they were periodic oppressors in the period of the Judges. Worst of all, Canaanites were dangerous because they tempted the Israelites to forsake their God in favor of the idols and sacrificial practices they embraced. In the time of Jesus, the woman was a Syro-Phoenician, as Mark designates her, which is to say she was a member of the oppressing class of the Roman Empire which made victims of the Jews. Starting from early childhood, he would have taken in this adversarial relationship before he knew what had possessed him. With this cultural inheritance, it is understandable, if not commendable, that Jesus would speak to a Canaanite (Syro-Phoenician woman who came to her for help the way he did. Many commentators try to get out of this difficulty by suggesting that Jesus was just testing the woman. That is possible but I would like to follow up the ramifications of accepting the plain sense of this story.
The Canaanite woman’s retort is justly famous for its cleverness and humility, qualities that make her words subversive. Jesus seems as amazed by her faith as he is by the faith of the Centurion who asked him to heal his servant. That the woman asked for the deliverance of a daughter possessed by a demon may have aroused Jesus’ sympathy. The Gadarene Demoniac had shown Jesus how a dysfunctional culture can possess a person and need to be exorcized. That this woman wanted her daughter delivered of the “demon” possessing her own culture would alert Jesus of the need to eject the Canaanite “demon” that had possessed his own culture. This understanding of the story has Jesus modeling the ability and willingness to overcome an ancestral enmity by listening deeply to the reality of a person in need so that she ceases to be an enemy. We desperately need to learn to follow this kind of example offered by Jesus today.
Jesus’ subsequent feeding of four thousand people in Gentile territory suggests that Jesus had learned to give the “crumbs from their master’s table,” using the twelve baskets left over from the feeding of the five thousand in Israelite territory. In a stimulating article called The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus, Grant LeMarquand suggests that Jesus’ delivering the Canaanite daughter of the demon and then feeding her people in the wilderness is a transmogrification of the conquest of Canaan by Jesus’ namesake. Jesus “lost” his exchange with the woman but gained a multitude of people to welcome into His Kingdom.