How are we to understand this story in which Jesus is rude to a Canaanite woman whose daughter is possessed by a demon?
There is a feminist interpretation that says that Jesus, as a limited human being needs to be helped, in particular by the women who come into his life, and that here we see him being helped by the Canaanite woman to realize the full extent of his mission. She calls him, as it were, beyond the boundaries of his own understanding and imagination.
I don’t think this is to be simply dismissed. We do, often, have difficulty accepting the full humanity of Jesus and what it entailed. We are probably much happier, for example, accepting that Jesus needed to be taught how to pray by Mary and Joseph than we are with the suggestion that he needed to learn something about his mission from the Canaanite woman.
If we work with the belief that Jesus knew exactly what he was about and understood what his mission was and how he was to pursue it, how are we to explain the strange conversation that takes place between him and this woman? In the first instance he remains silent. (As he did also when confronted with the woman taken in adultery in John 8.) The disciples encourage him to do something for her, whether to help her or just to get rid of her is not clear. Jesus then makes the statement about being sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Whether he says this to the woman or to the disciples is, once again, not clear. The woman repeats her request: ‘Lord, help me’. Notice that she makes exactly the same prayer as Peter in last Sunday’s gospel: ‘Lord, save me’. In situations of great need we don’t need to be told how to pray. Then Jesus makes this strange statement in which he seems to imply that she is a dog. But is immediately taken by her answer about the dogs at least getting the scraps that fall from the master’s table. And so he acknowledges her faith and heals her daughter.
Here’s a suggestion as to what might be going on here. I spent a short time in Trinidad but learned that the people there liked what they call ‘piquant’. It is a French word that has hung around and refers to an exchange between people that is witty and clever, moving towards being daring and even (to one who does not understand what is going on) insulting. I can remember one or two conversations of this kind where each party is expected to give as good as he gets – there is excitement and fun in the conversation but an onlooker might not understand what is happening and might even feel uncertain about it.
Might it be that the Canaanite woman and Jesus are immediately attuned to each other – they were able to see each other’s eyes, for example – and that their exchange is of this kind, a kind of verbal sparring that both sides will enjoy. They are then enacting a parable for the sake of the disciples in order to teach them something about the universal mission of Jesus.
There is plenty in the prophets about the universal reach of God’s promises to Israel and we cannot imagine that Jesus is unaware of this. The first reading at Mass today is an example. In fact placing it alongside the story of the Canaanite woman, the Church is inviting us to see this prophecy fulfilled in this encounter. The pagans, represented by the woman, will come to the temple, Jesus, and their prayers and sacrifices will be acceptable to the Lord. The text is quoted later in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus drives out the moneychangers and says it is to be a house of prayer for all the peoples.
The second reading too is about this, Paul grappling with the fact that the Jewish people as a whole had not accepted Jesus as the messiah. Romans 9-11 is the great New Testament text for thinking about this question, the starting point for thinking about the relationship of Christianity with the Jewish people. And of course it is not only Jews who have from time to time looked down on other people (or been looked down on by them) – there are many nations that have done this.
But Jesus in his encounter with the woman takes the opportunity to teach the disciples something about the call of human need, that there is no limit and no boundary to where the light of the gospel and the healing love of Christ are to be brought. Wherever there is human need the gospel is to be preached.
And the missionary learns from the missioned, if we can put it like that. We might be tempted to think that we know what people need and that we are the ones to provide it. But Jesus, remember, does not presume to know that: ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ My first assignation as a priest was to Edinburgh where I studied at the University and helped out at the chaplaincy. I was 24 years of age and supposed to be an ‘elder’ in the community! I learned what I was to do as a priest from the people who came to me, they taught me what a priest was to do, the ways in which he was expected to serve. There must always be this dialogue, between the teacher and the taught, the missionary and the missioned, the helper and the helped. We do not realize the gifts we carry until those we serve help us to realize them. Their need will call us beyond the limits we may have set to what we think we have to offer.
I must acknowledge that Fergus Kerr’s homily on the Torch website helped me in thinking about this gospel. And I conclude with a quote from him:
Isn’t this wonderful little story an invitation to reflect on the possibilities of liberation that pagans may hope to find in Christianity, and the necessity, if they are not to be disappointed, that we Christians discover possibilities in ourselves that call us beyond our inherited boundaries?