The Faith of the Canaanite Woman
Mahatma Gandhi in his autobiography tells how, during his student days, he read the Gospels and saw in the teachings of Jesus the answer to the major problem facing the people of India, the caste system. Seriously considering to embrace the Christian faith, Gandhi attended church one Sunday morning intending to talk to the minister about the idea. On entering the church, however, the usher refused to give him a seat and told him to go and worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned. “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.”
The belief that God’s blessings are somewhat limited to peoples of certain nationalities or cultures has been around for a very long time. Such a belief was very much alive in the society in which Jesus grew up. When Jesus said in today’s gospel reading, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24) he was expressing a popular belief. It is not clear whether he really believed it himself or whether he said it in order to expose and correct its false claims. Every people and culture has a handful of such prejudices and myths – from the myth of the Jews as the only people of God to that of no salvation outside the Church, from the prejudice of the caste system in India to that of racial superiority in Nazi Germany, from the myth of the superiority of men over women to that of the superiority of Western cultures. We are today invited to expose such myths and correct their false and exaggerated claims.
It took the active intervention of a complete outsider, a Canaanite woman, to create the awareness among early Jewish Christians that the belief in the exclusive divine prerogatives of the Jewish people did not stand up to reason. Probably you and I owe the fact that we are Christians today to the heroism of this unnamed woman who dismantled the dividing wall of intolerance between Jews and Gentiles. We need to consult this woman in today’s service, asking her to teach us how to go about dismantling the structures that create undue division among God’s children, the human race that God has loved into being.
The first thing she teaches us in our Christian vocation to reconcile all humankind to God is courage. Given her position as a foreigner and as a woman, it took phenomenal courage on her part to decide to take on the all-Jewish and all-male company of Jesus and his disciples. She was so small that, even though she addresses Jesus by his proper Messianic titles: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David” (verse 22), Jesus still ignored her: “He did not answer her at all” (verse 23a). Most people at this point would give up and accept defeat. But not our Canaanite sister. Rather she intensifies her efforts and embarks on a one-woman demonstration to the point that the disciples had to ask Jesus to do something about it: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us” (verse 23b). Her courage and her refusal to take no for an answer finally paid off.
The second thing we can learn from this woman is focus or what the civil rights movement calls “keep your eyes on the prize.” When Jesus spoke to her in language that demeaned her people: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (verse 26), she did not lose her cool but kept her eyes on the goal of her mission, which is to show that even non-Jews are entitled to God’s blessing in Christ. Our sister knew that if she gave Jesus a piece of her mind at that moment, that would jeopardise her mission and she might lose what she came for. But with focus and with her eyes on the prize, she made it. She is a model of non-violence, if you figure that the words of Jesus to her were unjustified verbal assault on her and on her people.
Finally, it was Jesus who gave in: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (verse 28) and the woman got what she wanted. The message of this single woman outsider to every one of us today is: Be not afraid. Be not afraid to challenge prejudice and falsity even in high places, even in religious high places. The least among us can be a vehicle that God can use to bring justice and healing to all of God’s disadvantaged daughters and sons all over the world.
Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp