The Canaanite Woman

The Canaanite Woman

Wow. What a strange gospel there is today! Sometimes, we can get so used to Jesus being that kind and gentle messiah that when He speaks like this, it shatters our perception of Jesus and makes us rethink about who He really is. Just look at that gospel!

NABRE

Matthew 15

21 Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” 24 He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” 28 Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

It’s a doozy, isn’t it?

Now! Before we talk about the gospel, let’s talk about art, because this is an interesting art piece with an interesting story!

The Art

In olden times before the printing press, many of these major gospel stories, such as this one, were individually illustrated in the bible devotional books in a practice known as manuscript illumination. After all, not everybody had the ability to read, or read well, and illustrations were often used a tool to help the reader conceptualize the scene. This is one such manuscript illumination in the French Gothic style!

The book was commissioned by the Duke of Berry as a Liturgy of the Hours in 1416, but alas! The three artists that were originally commissioned and the Duke of Berry all died before the book was finished — probably from the Plague. Still, a little more than a half century after the work was started, several artists, including the artist who did this particularly beautiful illumination, Jean Columbe, finally finished the work for the Duke of Savoy to use.

Miracle of the Canaanite Woman, from Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry, by Jean Columbe, c. 1485-89. Musee de Conde, Chantilly, France

Gospel Reflections

As I was reading this gospel, I couldn’t help but think of the history between the Israelites and the Canaanites had. The Israelites and the Canaanites really had a tortured past, to put it mildly. How tortured? Well, let’s just say that there are several Old Testament books that detail how the God ordered the wholesale destruction of the Canaanites. (For the curious, Deuteronomy 7.1-2; 20.16-18 are where God’s commands to kill the Canaanites are, and the Book of Joshua details how these commands were carried out.)

So, why were Canaanites so hated by God? Because they believed in a horrible religion that was brutal. The religion centered on a high god named “Molech” who demanded ritual prostitution and child sacrifice. There are stories about how the Canaanites would throw their children on bonfires and pound drums so that the parents who threw their children in the flames couldn’t hear their children’s screams.

Not only that, but the religion was insidious, and nearly every time that the Israelites allowed the Canaanites in their midst, the Israelites would inevitably start adopting the Canaanites’ practices. After all, the Canaanite religion allowed for multiple gods, so they viewed it as completely compatible that Molech could be possibly considered Israelites’ God. They were very tolerant! So, whenever the Israelites and the Canaanites married with each other, the fusing of religions happened, which caused Israelites to participate in these grave, mortal sins which “cried out to heaven” or to complicitly allow them to happen.

So, it’s under this context that it’s absolutely necessary to view the confrontation between this Canaanite woman and Jesus, otherwise it sounds like Jesus is merely being cruel to her.

Jesus comes to Canaan and He meets a Canaanite woman who calls out for Him to save her daughter. But Jesus doesn’t listen to her. Why? Because she likely sees Him as a miracle worker who is working through the power of her gods, since she probably viewed her gods as completely compatible as the Israelite God. In fact, if He did help her, perhaps she would even praise Molech and offer him sacrifice!

But, Jesus ignores her.

So, then she calls out to His apostles. After all, if Jesus is a miracle worker, perhaps they can do miracles too. But they simply get annoyed and tell Jesus to make her stop harassing them. And that’s when Jesus comments that He came only for Israel. And then, when she calls for His help again, he likens her as a dog because she is a Canaanite.

To us, in the modern day, this sounds extremely cruel, but to that era, that is a huge wake up call. No, Jesus is not a mere puppet of the gods that she believes in. No, He is not interested in saving the Canaanites under their own terms, no matter how much she cries out. If she is to get what she wants from Him, she needs to submit to Him and realize that the God of Israel is not simply another Canaanite with another name. He is first the God of Israel, and she needs to leave aside her own Canaanite beliefs about her gods, realize that she has either participated or has been complicit in inhuman acts and is in need of Jesus’ mercy, and trust in Jesus alone from now on.

And she does. And as soon as she does, Jesus saves her daughter.

So, what does this mean for us?

We live in a world that tolerates many cruel, inhuman acts — sins that cry out to heaven. And sometimes, especially with the pressure that society can give us, it can be tempting to throw in the towel and start to believe in what society teaches — even if it runs directly against our Catholic beliefs. The Canaanites had their ritualistic child killing, after all, and we have our abortion. And there’s plenty more disagreements to be found!

But, as Christians, we cannot let our beliefs fuse and become indistinguishable with secular attitudes, if they oppose each other. Instead, we must look to and trust in Jesus alone.

After all, He is the only one who can save us.

Dear Jesus,

Help us turn to You, even when we feel pressured to leave You behind. Give us the perseverence to pray and rely on you always. If You will it, answer our prayers. And always help us trust in You.

Amen.

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