St. Matthew’s reference to a Canaanite woman pleading with Jesus for a healing universalizes his Gospel proclamation which makes it relevant for us these millennia later, and assures that Jesus’ promises of his kingdom (not of this world) are available to all of us. Indeed today’s gospel passage from St. Matthew is most relevant to our own days of insecurity and threat upon our sense of well being. Jesus’ message of forgiveness for sin and the promise of eternal life transcends all of our worries, anxieties, and fears. At first I had a hard time myself relating to today’s Gospel, especially with regard to “giving the food of children to dogs.” [What?] We have to remember that Jesus came with a NEW testament. He could masterfully turn a phrase and he used this talent (as a treasured former Vincentian teacher used to say to us in the classroom) to get his followers to “look at something like that robin eyeing a worm early in the morning.” Knowing this, I went to my old Jerome Biblical Commentary and, digging, I discovered the real story behind Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman.
You see, Mathew’s Canaanite woman (a “Syro-Phoenician woman” in Mark) should have been considered an outcast and part of the “wicked and godless race to be exterminated” according to Jewish perception. In this light Jesus’ equating of her with “the dogs” would seem on target; but on the contrary, Jesus’ trading of borderline insulting sayings with her, in the Semitic world, amounted to being “coy” with each other. Just the opposite of out-casting, Jesus is allowing familiarity and closeness with this woman. The disciples wanted her “dismissed.” Jesus’ actions affirm and reward her true faith. As “other than Jew” she is not thereby excluded from the Reign of God, rather by faith she is included in and embraced by the Good News.
Because of the actions of misinformed extremists, understandable fear (if not terror) has been struck into the minds and hearts of people who might otherwise have been found to be tolerant and respectful of people with a different worldview and a different belief system. This is sad. This is a dangerous distraction, in my view. Jesus’ treatment of the Canaanite woman is the approach to take. She is the “lady next door” and has shown no signs of aligning herself with some extreme view deserving to be “outcast” or stereotyped into a brainwashed terrorist organization. Jesus therefore teaches and models for his disciples how to treat her with engaging care and respect. He includes her in his kingdom based on a new testament.
In our day-to-day lives, more than ever, we need to—WE MUST—do the same as Jesus, for the sake of the kingdom. Nobody ever claimed that following in Jesus’ steps would be a cakewalk. But can’t we see that such an approach to living with and alongside is exactly what Jesus would have of us? How else would we come to holy communion? There was a time in this country when Catholics (“Those Papists”) were perceived as a threat. “Whatever you do, don’t let those Catholics make their way into government!” Thank God for the people who decided by themselves that it was more important to get to know us first, before labeling us and treating us as outcasts.