What do you think about miracles? As I mentioned before, when it comes to miracles, I think it is most helpful for us to avoid asking did the miracle really happen? Instead, we ought to ask: what does a miracle story mean? By asking that second question, we will be truer to the story and will also find various perspectives and meanings for ourselves. So let’s do that again now with another miracle story—this time involving a Canaanite mother and her ailing daughter, and of course, Jesus of Nazareth, in the Gospel of Matthew.
This part of Matthew’s story begins with Jesus in the Jewish territory of Galilee but then shifts to the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory, but even more than that, Matthew’s author tells us it’s Canaanite country. Why does that matter and who were the Canaanites you ask? The people called Canaanites were at first those who lived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The Hebrew scriptures [OT] [more specifically Genesis] tell us that Canaan extended from Lebanon toward the Brook of Egypt in the south and the Jordan River Valley in the east. Today that would be Lebanon, Israel, and some part of Jordan and Syria.
Back in ancient times, roughly 200 BCE, the Canaanites were pretty much an enemy of those who called themselves Israelites. Noah, you know, the guy whose ride was an ark—he had a son named Ham, who then had a son named Canaan, so goes the story. Ham did something bad to his dad Noah and that stayed with him; this was passed on to his son Canaan. Eventually, the name Canaanite, particularly in Joshua’s time, was a broader reference to a variety of nomadic, indigenous people, like for example, the Hivites, Jebusites, or Amorites.
That’s from the book of Judges, one of the books of the Bible that many people say they have read but are totally lying to you because most people only last about 5 minutes before they give up on that one.
To sum this up, Abraham’s descendants, called the Israelites, believed they had a claim to the land of Canaan and so they needed to defeat the Canaanites, who of course wanted to stay in their lands. So there’s history here that’s important to keep in mind. Still with me?
Once last thing before we get back to the main character in the story, a Canaanite woman. Right before she arrives on the scene, Jesus says this in front of a crowd of people, including his followers: “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
This business of defilement is important to note. Many times the Gospel writers give us some insight into what is clean and unclean—who is considered outside of God’s kin-dom and who belongs. And then Jesus seems to not only cross those lines but to erase them. In this case, what goes into the mouth is symbolic of rules or purity laws. If someone does not follow certain societal or religious rules that person is defiled, i.e. separated from God. Of course, this idea of defilement allows for people to judge others and even to reject them, based on whether or not they follow certain rules. It may be tempting to assume that ancient Jewish purity laws are thing of the past and not relevant, but not so fast. We too have our own purity laws, agreed ways of behavior.
We too exclude people from society and community, claiming that our way is God’s way, that we are right.
This has led to specific examples of exclusion and marginalization, including but not limited to shaming of and violence against people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender. Hateful rhetoric and sadly more violence against our beautiful friends and family who are black or brown. What we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia is not a one-time event. We may not use names like Canaanite, but we certainly say things like “illegal immigrant,” “alien,” “those people,” the C word for women, and of course all those subtle ways we separate a person or a group form ourselves, referring to them only by their race or nationality, rather than just their name, or calling them friend or colleague. I could go on, but you get the idea. This idea of defilement and excluding people is still happening in this country, in our cities, towns, and suburbs. This defilement happens when we assume something about a person before actually having an experience with that person. Oh, she’s Canaanite? Send her away.
But Jesus turns this idea around, teaching that these rules [and our following them obsessively] is actually defiling us. Instead, we ought to focus on how we behave towards other people. Do we treat others with compassion and love, regardless of who they are or where they come from or what they look like? Or do we reject and expel them so we can feel better about ourselves?
Enter the shouting Canaanite woman. That’s right—she was yelling at Jesus. In the original Greek, the word for her shouting is the same word for the disciples’ shouting when they were stuck in a boat in the stormy Sea of Galilee. Her shouting is exposing her to the crowds; how will they react? She’s also putting pressure on Jesus; how will he react? At first, Jesus ignores her. That’s not a typo. And of course, Jesus’ own followers, just like they did in two other miracles stories [the feeding of 5000+ people and the feeding of the 4000], tell Jesus to send people away. Send the Canaanite woman away., Jesus. Expel her, exclude her.
But the Canaanite woman is relentless. She comes and kneels before Jesus. She is the clear model of what is pure—her love for her daughter and her desire for mercy and healing. No defilement here. One might expect that Jesus’ disciples felt pretty defiled themselves at this point. Then the story takes a bit of an uncomfortable turn. Jesus, up to this point, had ignored this woman hoping for her daughter to be healed. Now, kneeling at his feet, she asks again. And Jesus tells her that he is only sent to the lost of Israel, i.e. NOT her, a Canaanite. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?
Pause for a moment.
She asks for help once again and Jesus tells her that it wouldn’t be fair for him to give her the blessing [food] of Israel’s children and then compares her to a dog. Are you shifting in your seat now?
But she is smart. Even dogs eat crumbs from their master’s table. She wasn’t fazed, being solely motivated by the love she had for her daughter. This moved Jesus to praise her, a Canaanite woman, the one whom others told him to send away. Let it be done. Let the healing come.
What does this miracle story mean?
For me, I’m hearing loud and clear [especially as I consider our context today], that Jesus exposed the societal prejudice and injustice of our religious and societal rules, in the public square; Jesus didn’t ignore it or try to explain it away. Jesus called out the privilege we hold over each other and then gave up his own privilege, choosing to include rather than to exclude. Jesus chose to focus on the way of compassion and love.
This is the kind of way we should follow; this is the kind of behavior we should exhibit. In a world full of privilege, prejudice, defilement, and exclusion—we can choose to give up our privilege out of compassion and love for another, we can choose to include, we can choose to keep our love in an age of hate. And then healing can come.