by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 15: 21-28

I decided to teach rather than preach this Sunday’s Gospel text, and in doing so discussed methods of exegesis. Rather than sharing yesterday’s teaching notes and trying to capture the congregation’s comments and questions, I’m sharing a paper I wrote about 15 years ago for Dr. John Kampen’s excellent class on Matthew’s Gospel while I was pursuing my M.Div. at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. Originally titled “Prayerful Petitioner and Clever Tester,” this paper became the basis for yesterday’s discussion of an initially disturbing and yet ultimately hopeful story of a woman whom Jesus at first ignored and insulted. “Nevertheless, she persisted!–we might say today. And she altered the course of his ministry. In a reversal fitting of this gospel’s themes and in anticipation of the paradoxical cross, Jesus won by losing that debate. He and the woman demonstrate the inevitably affective quality of true communion, the give and take of relationships. This pericope pictures the possibility that the God to whom Jesus points is affected by humanity, thanks to a complex character who prayerfully petitioned Jesus and cunningly tested—and bested—him.

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David: my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, Saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, Saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28, NRSV)

Finding the “trouble in the text” is a common homiletical and exegetical approach. Readers have had no trouble finding the trouble in the Matthean account of the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15: 21-28). Even on a first reading, much is troubling about, for example, the disciples’ complaints that a desperate mother with a tormented daughter is bothering them. Much is troubling about the way Jesus himself at first ignores her, then thwarts her request and insults her. Much is troubling about the Matthean culture, which (although not entirely unlike our own) marginalizes people based on their gender, foreignness, religion, ethnicity, and mental/physical health. Much is troubling and confusing about the reader’s own responses: Do we as readers find the woman obnoxious? Admirably assertive and clever? Embarrassingly self-effacing and servile? Do we find Jesus to be cruel and indifferent, or simply “rude” (Scott 25)? Or do we strain to hear a friendlier tone in his words and explain his behavior as a result of fatigue or an attempt at humor? After all, if we assume a Marcan priority, Matthew intentionally “worsens the picture of Jesus” (Scott 25) that Mark created in a parallel pericope. Then there are the myriad narrative, rhetorical, historical-sociological, form, and redactional issues that trouble our attempts to find a coherence within this passage and between it and the rest of the Matthean account. Yet this troubling text is pivotal in appreciating Matthew’s development of the ministry of Jesus, and particularly his ministry to the Gentiles. Identifying the true protagonist within these eight verses, a vexing exegetical issue, will sharpen understandings about the Matthean Jesus’ purpose. Is Jesus or the Canaanite woman the protagonist in the story? Is Jesus or the Canaanite woman at the heart of this pericope’s meaning? Another way of asking this question is “Who changes whom?”.

Traditionally, critics have focused on Jesus’ role in dealing with this Canaanite woman in need (what he did and did not say, how he acted and why). Feminists, not surprisingly, have focused more on this mother’s agency and some, therefore, consider her the true protagonist (and bemoan, incidentally, the invisibility of her daughter in this pericope and the paucity of scholarship investigating her absence). They note the Canaanite woman is, after all, the first woman to speak directly in this gospel—and the only character to best Jesus in a battle of wits. However, an authentically feminist critique can break open patriarchal categories to see a mutuality at work in this fascinating relationship that affects both characters. Both a form analysis of the pericope that identifies the woman’s speech as a traditional lament psalm, and an intratextual analysis that compares the woman to the “tester” in Matthew 4: 1-11 permits an authentically feminist reading of mutuality in the text that recognizes this unnamed character’s significance in shaping Jesus’ ministry and the pericope’s meaning for the Matthean community. Locating agency in this pericope is not an “either/or” determination. In recognizing this woman as both prayerful petitioner within a covenantal relationship as well as a cunning tester converting a Son of David, readers can focus on the reciprocity of the relationship between Jesus and the woman. Such an image of mutuality offers all followers of Jesus a healthy construct for engaging the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

The pericope is consistently delineated as beginning with 15:21 and ending with 15:28. The only discrepancy among early manuscripts concerns the omission of “and Sidon” in 15:21, but most authoritative manuscripts include it (Throckmorton 94). One key lexical matter concerns the translation of the preposition in verse 21. Did Jesus cross the border “into” the region of Tyre and Sidon, or did he go “to” or “toward” that Gentile area? And was it a solidly Gentile area? Levine (The Social and Ethnic Dimension of Matthean Salvation History 138) believes the woman meets Jesus within the limits of his territory, Davies assumes she meets him “outside Jewish territory (114), while Guardiolo-Saenz, who reads the text from a Latina/borderlands perspective, argues the story exists in an indefinite borderland area and warns against romanticizing the woman in a way that loses sight of her as “the dialectic Other” who crosses the border to “confront the one in power” and demand inclusion (75, 76). The N.R.S.V translation will be used consistently.

In the Middle Ages, an allegorical reading by Hilary, Jerome, and others, interpreted the woman/dog to mean the Gentiles, the children to be Israel, the bread to mean doctrine, and the table as scripture–although Jerome reverses the roles to then argue that the Gentiles eventually became the children and the Jews became the dogs! Calvin saw the story as a preview of a post-Easter Christ. The post-Reformation Catholic interpretations emphasize the woman’s humility as her saving virtue, while Reformers emphasized her faith, which became a doctrine and continues to be of major concern for Protestants (Luz 336-7). However, Luz exposes the limits of the traditional “salvation-history” and “parenetic-existential” interpretations (Luz 341-2) and explores meanings for the Matthean community that lived among the Gentiles, “separated from Israel” and “seeking a new life and a new field of endeavor among the Gentiles” (Luz 341). In contrast, Scott finds disappointing this sort of redaction criticism (28) and also critiques the historical approaches of Bultmann and D. A. Hill as he focuses primarily on narrative criticism. Current social-scientific approaches tend to probe meanings of sickness, healing, and demon possession in the Matthean community’s time and culture (Love 2).

Perhaps the most active recent scholarship on this pericope and the approach with which this paper primarily is in conversation is feminist, including womanist and Latina forms of feminism. In A Feminist Companion to Matthew, three of the eleven contributions focus on the Canaanite woman, and others in the collection address her to some extent, all seeking ways to make this mother more “prominent in Christian tradition” (Levine 18) —and not just because she is a woman but because she “reveals striking components of the gospel.” After all, “[a]s Jesus himself recognizes, we ignore Matthew’s Canaanite wom[a]n at our own peril” (Levine 20). Many want to assert unequivocally, “She is indeed the protagonist (O’Day 117) and Jesus “initiates nothing in this story.” Thus, “[a]ny attempt to classify this text by placing Jesus at its center will ultimately be inadequate”(O’Day 118). Certainly feminists rightly counter the “neglect” of this “overlooked” character (Wainwright 126), some going so far as to accuse other readers of “mistreat[ing]” her to protect their own status quo (Guardiola-Saenz 70). Most recognize that Jesus learns from her (Humphries-Brooks 144). Indeed, when interpreters force Jesus into the role of protagonist, their assertions seem strained, as when John Meier explains that the pericope “begins with the initiative of Jesus as he withdraws to the pagan regions of Tyre and Sidon” (398, emphasis mine). How is withdrawing an act of initiative? Yet the tenor of much feminist analysis is ironically inconsistent with feminist concerns for recognizing and supporting the interplay of relationships. An ostensibly feminist emphasis on naming the woman as the agent of change minimizes the possibility of mutuality in the interactions between Jesus and this woman.

The pivotal nature of the Canaanite woman pericope is muted by typical overarching structural analyses. (See Appendix A.) For instance, Carter labels the third narrative block in which this pericope falls as “Response to Jesus’s Ministry” (247), thus effectively labeling the Canaanite woman’s encounter with Jesus by his effect upon her. But some structural analysis of this pericope heightens awareness of the Canannite mother’s importance to the Evangelist’s message. Almost literally at the center of Matthew’s gospel, this pericope is at the heart of a chiastic narrative structure that is framed by two stories of two different blind men healed by Jesus (9:27-31 and 20:29-34), to whom the Canaanite woman is compared favorably. This chiasm also exposes the contrast between the woman of faith and the two stories of sign-seeking Jewish leaders who test Jesus, as well as the two bread miracle stories that depict the disciples as lacking understanding (Capel Anderson 37-38). The redactor’s intention seems to be to contrast a Gentile woman’s praise-worthy faith with Jewish leaders’ rejection of Jesus and the disciples’ partial understandings about Jesus. Comparing this pericope to its parallel in Mark accentuates its significance for Matthew because the First Gospel deviates from its “usual practice of shortening stories from Mark” and in this instance “lengthens the narrative” (Love 8).

A feminist form analysis by O’Day, however, focuses on the structure within the pericope itself and its literary form. She argues against the classification of the pericope as a miracle story, since the narrative details are scant and dialogue is at the core, and also against labeling it as a “saying of Jesus,” since the focus is not solely or even primarily upon Jesus’ words. Rather, she contends, the pericope is best understood as a lament psalm. Although some commentators notice the woman’s kneeling is “a position which in Matthew, frequently represents worship” (Scott 38), and others hear echoes of lament psalms in the woman’s language (“Have mercy on me, Lord”), the connection “goes deeper” and, when her words are isolated from the pericope, it becomes “a narrative embodiment of a lament psalm” that liturgically expresses honest feelings beginning with a plea and ending in praise (116-118). Note O’Day’s outline of the Canaanite woman’s words with the opening features of a lament psalm:

A. Petition: Have mercy on me
B. Address: O Lord, Son of David
C. Complaint: My daughter is severely possessed . . .
D. Address: Lord
E. Petition: Help me
F. Motivation: For even the dogs eat the crumbs . . .

While the words of petition, address, and complaint do not require explication, and while the words of praise are implicit in Jesus’s response, according to O’Day, the motivation portion of a lament psalm and of this one in particular are the hinge upon which this pericope—and arguably this gospel—swing. In the motivation portion of a psalm, “the petitioner attempts to provide God with reasons to act” in order to “force God’s hand” with bargaining or even intimidation (O’Day 123). Although a Canaanite, the woman acts within Israel’s psalm of lament tradition to speak to this Son of David as if she is making a “plea to God for a change of heart” (Alter 126), to defiantly demand mercy as an act of faith in the nature of a merciful God. In so doing, “this outsider reminds [Jesus] of the fullness and vitality of [his purpose], and he moves forward” thereafter to heal (15:29-31) and feed (15: 32-39) in keeping with his purpose (O’Day 125). The petitioner affects the healer, clarifying his purpose, even as the one petitioned affects/heals her daughter, as he lives out his purpose. Consistent with Israel’s covenant relationship with God and indeed with the patronage system of first century Mediterranean culture, there are mutual obligations. Using this psalm form heightens the irony of the pericope for the Matthean community who would have been forced to see a Canaanite as the model of bold faith within their Jewish tradition. Although some readers emphasize her submissiveness, the psalm-like structure stresses instead the woman’s assertiveness that is consistent with Israel’s traditions of worship and petition.

Considering the form of this pericope to be a prayer/psalm of petition also opens up associations with another Matthean reference to prayer, which uses bread as the symbol of human need. In Matthew 6:11, Jesus teaches his followers to petition God by saying, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Ironically, he prefaces his lesson on prayer by warning against praying “as the Gentiles do” (6:7). But it is a Gentile woman who offers another model prayer to supplement the one Jesus prayed. Similarly, bread represents human need in Matthew 7:7-9 when Jesus instructs in how to petition the heavenly father. Ask directly and confidently that your requests will be granted: “Ask, and it will be given you” (7:7a). And if you petition your Father in heaven for bread, you need not worry that he will give you a stone instead (7:9-10). This Gentile woman’s prayer is consistent with both the bread symbolism in Jesus’s model prayer and his subsequent instructions on prayer.

Readers also see the rightness of her petition as it connects to the bread in the feeding miracles that frame her story. When the woman demands that she receive at least “the crumbs that fall from” the master’s table, she reminds readers of the leftover crumbs that remained from the feeding of the multitudes in the framing bread miracles and the bounty those crumbs represent. While in Matthew’s first feeding miracle the crumbs are collected into twelve baskets (representing the twelve tribes of Israel), the number of baskets of bread crumbs collected in the second feeding miracle immediately after Jesus heals the woman’s daughter is seven (representing the perfect number for all of creation, not just of Israel) (Scott 40). Thus, Jesus provides for those beyond the twelve tribes, rejects a scarcity model within God’s Kin*dom, and he “ends up as the one whose mind has been broadened by the encounter with this woman” (Scott 41). To return to the central question of who changes whom in this pericope, the answer is that both characters significantly affect one other.

The mutuality of the exchange between Jesus and the woman of Canaan is perhaps best illustrated in an intratextual comparison to Matthew 4: 1-11. Although internal comparisons between this pericope and others in Matthew abound, I could find no one who has compared it to the story of Jesus’ wilderness temptation/testing by the devil. Understandably, feminists might be reluctant to risk the ancient associations that a connection between Woman and Devil/Temptress could revive, even if the comparison reveals the woman to be the faithful tester rather than temptress. Yet the similarities —and a few key differences—cannot be ignored. Although some have seen Matthew 15: 21-28 as a test of the woman’s faith and even as a test of the disciples’, the real tester is the Canaanite woman who tests Jesus, in ways similar to but also different from the devil’s testing in Matthew 4. Although the low-status Canaanite woman serves as a foil for Satan, who believes he controls “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8), she tests him similarly but affects a gracious and powerful influence upon Jesus. As the chart in Appendix B illustrates, both pericopes feature dialogue that is a battle of wits. Both the Canaanite woman and the devil initiate the dialogue and persist in making three requests for a demonstration of Jesus’ power. Each time Jesus refuses their request, except at the final request from the Canaanite woman.

The pericopes both begin as Jesus withdraws for a time (4:1,2; 15:21). The first test comes as an explicit request from the devil to meet a physical need of Jesus, and as an implicit request from the woman for a physical need of her daughter. Here the human need of food and healing are named but will be linked metaphorically later in the second pericope (4:3; 15:22). Jesus explicitly or implicitly refuses (4:4; 15:23). Both testers try again after elevating Jesus. The devil places Jesus on the pinnacle of the Temple, while the woman’s kneeling in effect elevates Jesus in relation to herself. The testers both use liturgical language here, the devil quoting scripture and the woman employing the language of prayer (4:5,6; 15:25). To both, Jesus retorts with a quotation (4:7; 15:26). When the testers test again, attention turns to the tester’s status relative to Jesus: the devil asks to be worshipped; the woman seems to accept her comparison to a dog. While the devil’s first request that Jesus turn stones to bread is not fulfilled, the woman’s first implicit request for healing of her daughter is redefined metaphorically as a request for bread crumbs. (4:8,9; 15:27). The challenge ends and Jesus speaks for the last time, rebuking Satan and dismissing him, but praising the woman and granting her petition, the healing of her daughter (4:10,11; 15:28). Jesus’ continual refusal of the devil signals a strengthening of his resolve: he passes the test by refusing this tester. However, Jesus’s acquiescence to the woman and his final granting of her request points to Jesus’ own conversion and readjustment of his mission. He passes this second test by learning from the second tester. Whereas the first test by the devil inaugurates Jesus’ ministry, the second test by the woman expands it.

Symbolism is important in linking these two pericopes. Bread, representing the needs of humanity, appears in both pericopes: literal loaves of bread and figurative crumbs of bread are requested. We learn from Jesus’ eventual response to these requests (refusing to turn stones to bread to heal his own hunger but granting crumbs that will heal a young girl) that he has come to serve others, not himself. And his understanding of who those others are expands, thanks to the Canaanite woman. Jesus’ own status is also symbolized in the way the devil-tester wants to elevate Jesus above the temple and the way the woman-tester elevates him through her own worshipful stance. Through this comparison readers understand that Jesus’ mission is not to achieve status as chief leader among the Temple authorities of the mainstream religious system. Rather, Jesus is to lead an alternative sect that will even include the Gentiles. Further, Jesus’ power is not self-vaunting. Those in power must be humbled and must use their power to serve the community, Matthew seems to say.
Finally, both pericopes end with an exorcism of sorts, as Jesus drives away the devil and drives out the demon tormenting the woman’s daughter. His rebuke of the devil and praise of the woman indicate the different outcomes of the two tests. Perhaps we cannot completely eradicate those old associations between woman and the devil. But as we recall the serpent’s testing of the first woman in Genesis 3, we recognize that the Canaanite woman’s test of the new Adam (as Paul will call Jesus) is saving rather than damning, it invites healing rather than the curse of death, and it activates connection and relationship rather than separation and expulsion. Thus, the Canaanite woman redeems Eve’s failed test, just as Jesus, the new Adam, redeems Adam’s fall. In a reversal fitting of this gospel’s themes, Jesus wins by losing the second test. Anticipating the paradoxical cross, this pericope prefigures the way in which losing–a debate or one’s life–can also mean profound gain for all of humanity that Jesus came to save.

What humanity wins in this second testing is not only a more expansive gospel but a truly mutual relationship with the Jesus of the Gospel. Feminists who attempt to rescue this woman from a belittling, domineering Jesus by minimizing Jesus’ role are not being true to a feminist commitment to mutuality in relationships. This assertive woman does not need rescuing. Nor does Jesus need to be domesticated. These two characters are not, in fact, competing for the title of protagonist, as form and intratextual analysis underscore. Rather, they are demonstrating the inevitably affective quality of true communion, the give and take of relationships. Our interactions with other human beings as well as our engagement with the divine involve an interplay that in some ways can be said to alter both participants. This pericope pictures the possibility that the God to whom Jesus points is affected by humanity. Like stories within the Hebrew Bible depicting a God who can change God’s mind, this pericope illustrates humanity’s bold effect upon a mutable Jesus who reassesses his ministry during the course of the Matthean gospel, thanks to a complex character who prayerfully petitions him and cunningly tests—and bests—him.

My application of and reflection on this pericope can be summed up as theological, ecclesiological, and spiritual, and any of these themes can be sermonized. First, the Canaanite woman’s impact upon Jesus calls into question the impassibility of God. I resist any theology that locks God away completely from the dynamics of relatedness. A God who can be approached and (of course only partially) apprehended through the “in betweenness” of human God-seekers is consistent with modern epistemological and linguistic theory. A Kin*dom of God ushered in by a mutable Jesus is consistent with the Hebrew Bible’s frequent depiction of a passionate and responsive God. Jesus’ own growth and conversion in this pericope illustrates the potential conversion for all humankind.

Second, the Canaanite woman’s social location cautions the Church to listen to “outsiders”—to make space for their pleas and perspectives. Yet the church’s powers and structures do not easily accommodate these voices. In today’s church the outside voices shouting to engage Jesus and his followers and claim healing and blessing include the LGBT community. These marginalized “gentiles” of our culture, too long excluded by modern religious authorities, must today, in order to lay claim to their full inclusion in the Kin*dom, pester modern disciples who hope to silence them and send them on their way. In terms of leadership in the church, this pericope also recommends full inclusion of women in ministry, but beyond simple inclusion among the leaders, the Canaanite woman promotes a feminist, collaborative style of church leadership over against the hierarchical and patriarchal ecclesiology that predominates.

Finally, I recognize an honest and robust spirituality in this woman’s willingness to argue her case in the tradition of the Psalms and trust in a covenantal provision for herself and the one for whom she advocates. Therefore, the Canaanite woman challenges me in my own prayer life and is useful to me in a preaching and pastoral ministry. What may seem to be irreverence might, in Jesus’s eyes, be considered “great faith.” Prayer must be engaged dialogically, honestly, and daringly. Anyone of faith may approach the Holy One with boldness. I am reminded of the outrageous claim of Rev. Bailey Smith at the 1987 Southern Baptist Convention that “God does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” Yet this text illustrates how the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth eventually heard and responded to the prayer of a marginalized Gentile woman. A sermon that would contradict Bailey Smith’s narrow view of prayer could explore this text by focusing upon not only 1) who may approach God in prayer (anyone with faith) but also 2) how one may approach God (through rhetorical acts of petition, address, complaint, motivation, and praise—and through worshipful attitudes of bold honesty and humble dependence). In prayer we, like the Canaanite woman, both shout and kneel. For prayer to be effective (to create an effect upon the petitioner and the petitioned), it must be authentically dialogical and relational—so say the structure, form, and intratextual analyses of this psalmic pericope.

Structure of Matthew 15: 21-28
Placement of this pericope within the total structure of Matthew:
1st Narrative Block 1:1-4:16
God Commissions Jesus

2nd Narrative Block 4:17-11:1
Jesus Manifests God’s Empire and Commission in Words and Actions

3rd Narrative Block 11:2-16:20
Responses to Jesus’s Ministry

4th Narrative Block 16:21-20:34
Jesus Will Be Crucified and Raised

5th Narrative Block 21:1-27:66
Jesus in Jerusalem: Conflict and Death

6th Narrative Block 28: 1-20
God Raises Jesus
(from Warren Carter’s Matthew and the Margins)

Placement of this pericope within and at the fulcrum of the immediate chiastic narrative structure:
A. Two Blind Men (9:27-31)
B. Sign of Jonah (12:38-42)
C. Feeding of the 5,000 (14: 13-21)
D. Canaanite Woman (15: 22-28)
C.* Feeding of 4,000 (15:32-38)
B.* Sign of Jonah (16: 1-4)
A.* Two Blind Men (20:29-34)

Like the blind men, the Canaanite woman cries out for help. After attempts to silence her, she renews her request and questions Jesus, and her healing is based on faith. Like the blind men, she asks for mercy, and names him Son of David and Lord. (Compare 9:27-28; 15:22, and 20:30.) This chiasm contrasts this woman of faith—with sign-seeking Jewish leaders and the disciples’ lack of understanding. (from Janice Capel Anderson’s “Matthew: Gender and Reading” in A Feminist Companion to Matthew)

Structure of woman’s request within the Lament Psalm literary conventions:

A. Petition: Have mercy on me
B. Address: O Lord, Son of David
C. Complaint: My daughter is severely possessed . . .
D. Address: Lord
E. Petition: Help me
F. Motivation: For even the dogs eat the crumbs . . .

Although the pericope itself may seem to be a narrative, specifically a miracle story, most form critics reject it as such, in part because there is almost no narrative material. Some classify it as a “saying of Jesus” story, since the focus is on dialogue. However, one critic, noting the focus is not on what Jesus says but on what is said to him, places it in the tradition of the lament psalm. The protagonist is the woman, not Jesus. (from Gail R. O’Day’s “Surprised by Faith” in A Feminist Companion to Matthew)


Comparing Matthew 4:1-11 to Matthew 15: 21-28

First Testing / Second Testing Similarities between the testings
Mt. 4:1,2 / Mt. 15: 21 Jesus withdraws
Mt. 4: 3 / Mt. 15: 22 The tester comes to Jesus, explicitly or implicitly requesting a demonstration of his power
Mt. 4:4 / Mt.15: 23,24 Jesus, explicitly or implicitly, refuses
Mt. 4:5,6 / Mt. 15:25 The tester speaks again, having elevated Jesus. (The devil places Jesus on the pinnacle of the Temple, but the woman’s kneeling in effect elevates Jesus in relation to herself.) The tester uses liturgical language: the devil quoting scripture, the woman using language of prayer.
Mt. 4:7 / Mt. 15:26 Jesus refuses by quoting a saying.
Mt. 4:8,9 / Mt. 15:27 The tester tests again, this time with attention to the tester’s status relative to Jesus: the devils asks to be worshipped; the woman accepts her comparison to a dog. The devil’s first request that Jesus turn stones to bread is not fulfilled. The woman’s first implicit request for healing of her daughter is redefined metaphorically as a request for bread crumbs. It will be fulfilled.
Mt. 4:10,11 / Mt. 15: 28 Jesus speaks for final time. He rebukes Satan, refuses the tester for 3rd time, and dismisses him. Jesus praises the woman, promises to grant her wish, and heals the daughter.


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