The Gospel for this Sunday (Matt 15:21-28) is one of the most uncomfortable readings in the Bible. This is not how we like to think about Jesus. It almost (almost?) looks like He is being mean to a woman who is desperate. If I didn’t know this story was in the Gospels, and someone told me Jesus had done this, I’m sure I would have said no, it is not possible.
And yet, here it is.
I haven’t gotten completely comfortable with it (and maybe that’s not the goal), but I do have some thoughts. I think it is helpful to see the larger context of the Gospel first being offered to the Israelites (Jews), and then to Gentile (non-Jews, in this case Greeks/Hellenists). One of the themes in the Gospels is those who should be the most open were closed tight, and some of the Gentiles were very open (like the story of the centurion’s servant Mat 8:5-:13). This lead to some tension in the early Church (see Acts 6:1 and Romans 10 and 11). Romans goes into detail about how they fit in, and neither side should be looking down on the other. The parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16) talks about those who came late being made equal to those who have been serving since the beginning, and I suggest this is about the relationship between Jews and Greeks.
Let’s look at the larger narrative. Matthew 13: 54-58 shows Jesus being rejected by His home town of Nazareth. Chapter 14 we meet Herod (son of the guy who caused so much trouble in chapter 2, a story that echoed Pharaoh’s slaughter of the innocent in Exodus 1. The death of John the Baptist foreshadows the death of Jesus, the new Passover Lamb. Jesus feeds the 5000 in Jewish territory, and there are 12 baskets of fragments gathered, a symbol of the gathering of the 12 tribes of Israel. (Echo of the Passover and foreshadowing of the Last Supper). Then Jesus walks on water (doing Moses and the Red Sea one better). Then, we see the Scribes and Pharisees who insist on doing things their way rather than God’s way. Notice this section starts and ends with those who should be the most open are the most closed.
Jesus goes to Gentile territory. Now we meet the Canaanite woman and she demonstrates her faith. Those who demand things their way don’t do well. Those who recognize they are not entitled to anything do very well.
Jesus now feeds 4000 in Gentile territory, and there are seven baskets left over. This reflects the gathering of the seven Gentile nations: Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Deuteronomy 7:1).
Chapter 16 shows the Pharisees demanding a sign (once again, they want things done their way. They don’t get it. Jesus tells the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, which is their teaching (See also Mark 8:14-21 ad Luke 12:1)). Leaven as a sign of sinfulness is also in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, and he says, “Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough, inasmuch as you are unleavened, for our Pascal Lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed (v. 7).” In Jewish practice, there is a ritual for clearing all the leaven out of the house in preparation for Passover.
This brings me to John. In the Gospel of John we see three Passover times (2:13; 6:4; and 13:1). In the first there is the cleaning of the temple and miraculous wine. In the second there is miraculous bread and walking on water. In the third Jesus becomes the Passover Lamb. To fit this pattern, it suggests that the cleaning of the temple reflects the clearing out of the old leaven.
Perhaps Jesus testing the Canaanite woman was clearing out of spiritual leaven to draw her into the Pascal mystery. I don’t know if this makes sense, but I hope you enjoyed the ride.
Blessings, Fr. Jim