It’s strange for Matthew to call the woman in our gospel reading (Matthew 15:21-28) a Canaanite. By the time of Jesus, the Canaanite culture was long gone. The land of Canaan included parts of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria. When the people of Israel fled Egypt, they came into a territory dominated by Canaanite kingdoms. Gradually as the Philistines took over the coast and the kingdom of Israel dominated the interior, the Canaanite culture shrunk. By the time of the Exile, when the people of Jerusalem were taken to live in Babylon, Canaan no longer existed. Wars, invasions, demographic changes, and migrations mixed the Canaanite communities wither others. By Jesus’ time, after years of Greek and Roman rule, Canaanites didn’t exist. But we know, based on modern science, that the Canaanites never left. Recent DNA studies show how modern people living in Lebanon and the surrounding areas still have DNA matching skeletons buried 3500 years ago. By calling this woman a Canaanite, Matthew is making a statement. This woman is related biologically to Jesus and his disciples. But she is defined as someone who is completely different. She is a woman set apart, an outsider living in the old Philistine territories of Sidon and Tyre. She’s unworthy of Jesus’ time. And yet, she’s a mother who persists because her daughter is in trouble.
Jesus is a bit of a jerk in this passage. The Canaanite woman believes Jesus is who everyone says he is. She knows he has cured others and she wants her daughter to be cured too. Jesus hears her shouts but chooses not to answer. Even the disciples are annoyed by her persistent shouting. Since her words are failing, she takes the drastic step to get in Jesus’ way. She physically uses her body to disrupt his path. And once she’s stopped Jesus, she asks for help. Jesus responded harshly but she will not give up. She knows who Jesus is and will not let Jesus ignore her. Her faith is her persistence. She won’t let Jesus be anything but Jesus. Her persistence is also a description of who her God is. Her God cares. Her God heals. Her God will not let her family go and will keep God’s promises. She refuses to let Jesus be anything but Jesus. And if she can be persistent with Jesus, we can be too.
Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 11th Sunday After Pentecost, 8/20/2017.