We may think the Canaanite woman offers a leadership example of persistence and humility, content with the crumbs that fall from the Master's table. But the lesson is far beyond successful negotiation.
As an outsider, the Canaanite is like a dog compared to those who feast at the Master's table within the religious community. Jesus honors her great faith which stands in stark contrast against the disciples and religious leaders who reflect such little faith throughout Matthew's Gospel. The challenge presented even today is whether those who presume to feast at the Master's table are willing to offer even just a crumb to those in need.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And with me today is my co host, Fr. Timothy Lowe, former Rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. Greetings and salutations, Fr.Timothy!
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:27
Hello, Hollie, nice to be back with you.
Hollie Benton 0:30
And you as well. So Father, awhile back, I was in line at passport control, entry for US citizens, and I witnessed a man who spoke very little English as a second language, he was attempting to edge his way up the line. I mean, obviously, no one wants to stand in line. But we Americans like our processes and rules, so if people aren't going to stand in the right line, then they should at least wait their turn, right? People are turning their backs to him in a passive aggressive way to edge him out, elbow him out. As he's trying to plead his way forward with, "sorry, sorry, please, please," which grew louder and louder as people just refused to budge. People are giving him dirty looks, a few were bold enough to say, "No, wait your turn," and one guy even pushed him back. And a few people finally called over official personnel to get the guy to stop cutting. So finally, one official spoke to this guy in his native language. And you could tell from his gestures and body language, he was you know, motioning for the man to wait his turn in line. But then suddenly, he had this face of recognition and realization, and finally announced loudly, "Make way! Let this man through." And even then people were still perturbed, and one guy contested, kind of under his breath, "Why should this non American get special treatment?" The official heard it and stepped squarely in front of him and said, "Sir, if you were facing what this man faces, we would also treat you with the same kindness and respect. Now step aside." So what I liked about this official's explanation, what I found intriguing, is he didn't even justify why he was allowing the man to cut in line, he didn't owe these American travelers any explanation. He just brought it down to a common level of humanity, a matter of kindness and respect. I tell the story because I was reminded of it when you suggested we read for today the story of the Canaanite woman found in Matthew's Gospel. Unfortunately, people back then just as we do today, cling to our rules and our processes and our identities, who is in, who is out, if you want to be accepted, then fall in line and be like us. So in thinking about leadership, we see that leaders are much more likely to take care of their own people, those who know the rules and the processes and ascribe to the mission and vision of our organizations, fit into our company culture, attend and join our church. But the story of the Canaanite woman kind of turns all of that upside down doesn't it, Fr. Timothy?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 3:01
Well, it turns many things upside down, and as you say, many, many assumptions on our part, who's chosen, who is not. And it's interesting that Matthew inserts this story in the middle of a larger context, which of course, we'll discuss in a little bit. But yes, yes, yes, woman, foreigner, doesn't belong. But ironically, in this story, it's a little bit different is that Christ is in her territory. What's he doing, having wandered outside of the sacred precincts of the promised land? And so that's another curveball for Matthew. So there's lots of curveballs here, that we can talk, ultimately, to see what Matthew is trying to teach us about the story of the Canaanite woman.
Hollie Benton 3:39
So to provide some context, the story of the Canaanite woman in the Gospel of Matthew comes between a substantial explanation about what defiles a man, essentially, it's not what goes into the mouth, that defiles a man, but what comes out of his mouth that defiles a man. Then it's the Canaanite woman, followed by miraculous healings along the Sea of Galilee, then the feeding of the four thousand. And all of this is happening outside of Jerusalem, like you said, he's in her territory. In Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the hub of Jewish culture, where people ascribe to the rules and the processes and the mission of Judaism where we might expect Jesus to be. So, would you say a little bit more about the context of the story of the Canaanite woman?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 4:24
Well, again, compare what comes just before what you just described, about the conversation that the scribes and Pharisees come to Jesus and ask him a question. You see, they're complaining about his disciples, Why do they not adhere to the tradition of the elders, and this is what for us Orthodox, because I want us to get the first punch in the gut to us, okay? Because we have all kinds of traditions in our churches, all kinds of rules that we've piled on people, fasting rules, Lent, all of which I'm not saying anything negative about per se, but have nothing to do with the gospel, per se. And often when people are trying to make a point, they refer to the tradition of the Fathers as the basis of authority for what they're about ready to stay. I just want us to just be reminded of that because Christ hits us really hard about these traditions, and what he wants is the substance, the substance. You alluded to that - food restrictions, not what goes into the stomach, but what comes out of the heart. So again, what I find odd, which is so apropos even today is Matthew is addressing this to the Christian community, the issue of substance, what is Christ really interested in? What is he really teaching about? Before we get to the Canaanite woman, which is an intro, you have this discussion, and it's a man's world, the context of first centuryism, it's a man's world, okay. And I want us to contrast the Canaanite woman - desperation, mother, seeking something for her child - so a force to be reckoned with, because it's not about her. And the guys, you know, if you're in the Middle East, they're in the coffee house, drinking coffee, and playing backgammon, or cards and discussing politics, you see. If it's in Europe, you're at a pub, and the guys are there drinking, and they're discussing blah, blah, blah, therefore, they're not in touch with the real world. And so this is why Christ hits them here. So as we begin to look at the Canaanite woman, I want this to serve as an introduction, who is doing what and finally, who is the person we should follow?
Hollie Benton 6:24
So here's that passage now from Matthew chapter 15. "And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon and behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David, my daughter is severely possessed by a demon. But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him saying, Send her away for she is crying after us. He answered, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But she came and knelt before him saying, Lord help me. And He answered, It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs. She said, Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table. Then Jesus answered her, O woman, great is your faith, be it done for you as you desire, and her daughter was healed instantly." It almost seems like he's making a point about her actually being one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel, because he actually does have mercy on her.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 7:33
Well, as we mentioned, Matthew does something that the other gospel namely Mark, they have a similar story, and calls her a Canaanite woman. Okay. And we know that this is an ancient reference to the people who were in the land before the time of Joshua. And so that is a key exegetical point, she is labeled a Canaanite. Now, the Canaanites have not been heard of for centuries, functionally in the biblical text. In Joshua, actually, they were told to exterminate the Canaanites because they might be a bad influence and lead to the worship of the other gods and breaking of the commandments. And so she represents the quintessential enemy, or predates your own reality. And I think it's odd that he brings this in at this point, as someone who has no part and was judged earlier as also sinful, and therefore a temptation. We can say this because Christ says to her, I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. You mentioned this just now. You asked the question, well, is she part of the lost sheep? Technically, no, because the lost sheep has to do with choseness, selection, who belongs, who doesn't. You referenced that earlier in your introduction. And so while she isn't disputing this fact, she is still calling upon him for help, for help. She is not getting into a theological discussion of choseness: I'm chosen, you're not, therefore I'm privileged, you're not, therefore he's my God, he's my lord, my Savior. No, no, she continues to appeal to Him as Lord, Kyrios, Son of David, the one who has power, and still is seeking a favor. The key punch line here I think, it's not for herself. This is the point, it is not for herself, which is why she's going to get praised. Christ tests her. Initially he's very off putting in a way that he's off putting in no other section of the entire Gospel. He does not off put people, it's not his style. He responds quickly. For example, replication of this story, a few chapters later, where this time it's two beggars on the roadside in Jericho, and they're going to call out, Lord, Son of David have mercy upon us, and the same situation is going to happen. This time, not the disciples are trying to shush them, like they do here. Please she's embarrassing us. It's the crowd that's going to try to shush them. But Christ does not do what he does to this person by sort of dismissing her. He just simply says, What do you want me to do for you? They said, we want to see. He heals them, and the punch line in that one is they get up and they follow. Eyes are open, which has to do with understanding. So my point is the story of the Canaanite is to teach us an important lesson. Okay, who's in, who's not, who has access to the Lord and His mercy, it has nothing to do, as he said in chapter three in the voice of John the Baptist, who warned you to flee from wrath to come? Just because you think you're the sons of Abraham, He can raise sons of Abraham up from these stones. He broaches the subject of selection, choseness, and then ultimately she gets her way. Why? Because a woman, "Great is your faith." Now, Hollie, I don't think we're capable of quote unquote, setting her up as an example and trying to follow her example. It has to do with trust. It has to do with need. Not with our theology, not with our discussions about what's legal, what's not legal, what's prohibited, how should we fast, is it Wednesday, Friday, not all those discussions about food, which sometimes dominate discourses during our cyclical cycle of feasts and fasts. No, no, no, I mean, those are fine. I'm not dismissing them. But I'm saying that's not the substance. It's not the substance.
Hollie Benton 11:18
There's a lot of articles out there about the Canaanite woman, her example of persistence and humility. Basically, if you're just persistent enough, you'll get what you want from the Lord. If you're just humble enough, you'll get what you want from the Lord. And that's really not what's going on here.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 11:33
Hollie Benton 11:34
We can really get ourselves twisted in a knot and think that somehow we can push God into a corner to finally give us what we want. But that is not the teaching here.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 11:44
Come on, who doesn't negotiate with God in your hour of need? Everything's a negotiation, because that's how we think things work. I can give examples, not only my own life, but even stories from my father. Why did he quit smoking? He couldn't go on vacation with his family. He says, God, if you help me find a way to go on vacation, I'll quit smoking. Now he quit smoking, you know, it's good for him to quit smoking, okay, rather to die at 89 than 65. Okay, but I'm just saying the negotiation factor, no, no. It's about faith and choosing that way and this is the idea of following Christ. The idea is, let's have our eyes opened. Let's see and understand.
Hollie Benton 12:23
Right. Do you think the gospel writer in Matthew uses this dialogue to just call out the presuppositions, the gross disdain for the other, for the outsider, for the Canaanites, the quintessential enemy? Just, these are the attitudes that we have about the enemy. They are dogs to us.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 12:43
Absolutely. And I think Matthew does it systematically with those who finally are revealed that have faith, in the Centurion and others and even the ruler of the synagogue who is coming to him because he's powerless and his daughter is dying. They're systematic, the two blind men, which I just referenced, systematic, and this is in light of, take chapter 14, where you know, the story of Jesus walking on the water, and Peter challenges him that you may let me come and walk on the water, and then he fails. And then Christ challenges him about his little faith, that little faith is systematic with the inner group. And that's why at the end of Matthew, it's depressing, because after all of that, on the mountain, and there he is, and it says, they worshipped him, and they still doubted. They still doubted. What is Matthew saying that he doesn't give us a break. In other words, he doesn't want us to be cocky and egocentric, and assume that we are on the inside, that you can have gone through the whole 28 chapters all through events in Jerusalem witnessed everything, but you still may have doubt, little faith, little faith. I think that's the Christian's problem. It's not unbelief. It's little faith, little trust. Therefore, you remain a problem, a stumbling block to yourself. Yes. Desperation is a good thing. Because it brings us to our knees.
Hollie Benton 14:06
That's right. helps us get our priorities straight, that's for sure.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 14:10
Well, it gives us the opportunity.
Hollie Benton 14:13
Fr. Timothy Lowe 14:15
What's amazing is we understand the story about dogs and crumbs. A rule in my house is the dog gets the crumbs. You leave crumbs anywhere, they belong to him. He's a scavenger, okay, he just wants the crumbs. He's not asking for anything else. But my point about the crumbs is what do we offer God? And ultimately, do we offer just the crumbs, our leftovers of our time, our energy of our material possessions? What do we give people that we give them just the few moments a day, be it our children as parents, be it neighbors, all the stuff that really doesn't require anything from us, our access. This idea that she is only asking not much from Christ, just the crumbs that we would show compassion towards just an unclean animal because you know, in the context of this story, a dog is an unclean animal, not the adorable pet that is much a part of our lives. So this point of what are we offering? What are we giving to others? And often they just want something small and insignificant. And we just have to even stop and sometimes question, Why don't we give them more? Or do we even stop and are aware that we can do just the smallest thing to help another human being? I remember when I was asked to be the Rector at Tantur and got to know the employees and difficult lives because most of them were Palestinians crossing the checkpoint from Bethlehem, most of them Christian, a few Muslims, and they live very difficult lives. And all of a sudden, I was in the power as their boss, to help them even a little bit to improve their life. And it required nothing of me and of the institution and the funding of the institution. Because you know, everything is business, salary based, what can we afford, but realize that how little is being done to ease the struggle of their daily life. And if you just eased it a little bit, which required nothing other than just paying attention, and saying, Okay, I can reply, I can find the funds to do this, and so on. And not only were they grateful, ten years later, they're still grateful, because someone cared enough just to do even the simplest things that showed compassion and love, not arrogance, not condescension. We are equals doing the same thing, and they were the soul of the place of this institute, that was also a community of diverse people coming for short periods from all around the world. Without them the place had no soul because they were the constant element that was there. If you only think about Palestinians, hospitality, it's legendary. They have taught me more about what it means to be hospitable than any other people. Again, the outcast the outsiders, the ones on the other side.
Hollie Benton 16:49
Fr. Tim, it's always a joy and a pleasure to speak with you, and open the Gospels together and they're rich, rich for discussion.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 16:59
A pain in the tuchus, a pain in the backside because that's what the Hebrew word "chut" means. It means from the back. But then, to whom shall we go?
Hollie Benton 17:14
That's right. Thank you, Father.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 17:16
Transcribed by https://otter.ai