In the bible, names can tell us a lot about the subtext of a various situation. I have a feeling that if I knew my Hebrew bible any better I would make a lot more of the connections that the New Testament authors are trying to lead me to. One of those, I think, is found in Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 15:10-28). After withdrawing to the district of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus is met by a Canaanite woman, and I don’t think it’s an accident that she is described as such.
When was the last time you met a Canaanite? References to Canaan or the Canaanites only appear three times in the New Testament—once in this story, once in Stephen’s account of salvation history in Acts 7, and once in Paul’s speech in Antioch in Acts 13. The latter two examples are historical references—men reminding others of what happened a long time ago. Matthew’s use of the word is startling because it places a present-day woman in an ancient context. (Note that Mark uses “Syrophonecian” to describe the woman in 7:34—also an anachronistic term but one that Matthew seems deliberately to have shaded to provide a more powerful contrast by digging deeply into Israel’s history.)
The Canaanites were the people who occupied the land before Israel came in and took it from them. They weren’t just Gentiles. They were the ones standing in the way of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. They were the ones whose indigenous faith needed to be eradicated before the Israelite religion could be established in the land. This anachronistic reference brings this story to a whole new level. We are no longer dealing with a non-Jewish woman. Jesus is confronted by a representative of the exact opposite of Judaism. That means this story isn’t just a shocking tale of Jesus’ rejection of the woman but an incredible story of her faithfulness and eventual inclusion in the healing ministry of David’s son.
In other words, the word “Canaanite” shifts this story from “Why did Jesus do that?” to “Of course Jesus did that!” The reader isn’t supposed to dissect Jesus’ motive in excluding her. That isn’t the interesting part. The reader is led by Matthew to assume his harsh behavior. The part that leaves us scratching our heads is the faith of the Canaanite—the one whose ancestry was defined from Israel’s perspective by faithlessness. The right way to take Jesus’ harshness seriously isn’t to try to understand why he was being cruel or racist but to marvel at the theological shift that is accomplished in the end.
In the preceding verses (15:10-20), Jesus confronts the Pharisees about religious dietary practices. There was a dispute between them about how fastidious a faithful Jew would need to be in order to honor his or her religious heritage. Must a cup or plate be washed in a ritual fashion? Must the hands be washed for ritual purity and not just for hygiene? Jesus’ answer shows that purity or impurity starts within. It isn’t the prescribed observance that makes someone pure; the observance is a reflection of the purity that is found inside the heart of the believer. In this dispute, Jesus is pushing the boundaries of religious acceptance. Matthew is setting the stage for what follows. The encounter with the Canaanite takes the disputed question in the preceding bit and blows it apart.