Background and situation: The background and situation for understanding the story of the Canaanite woman's encounter with Jesus is contained in the first twenty verses of the text. In this section, Jesus counters a pharisaic argument, goes them one better, then abrogates all food laws, the major barrier to inclusion of gentiles. With exquisite timing, the (gentile) Canaanite woman then bursts upon the scene.
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’3He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, “Honour your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.”5But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honour the father. 6So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the wordof God. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
8“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
9in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.” ’
Translation: Then pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem to Jesus, saying, "In this, why do your disciples go by the side of the instruction of the elders, for they do not wash their hands when they eat bread." But he answered them saying, "And in this, why do you go by the side of the commandment of God because of your instruction of elders, for God said, 'Honor the father and the mother' and 'The one speaking evil of father and mother will die completely.' But you say that whoever says to the father and the mother, 'A gift from me by which you might have been assisted,' that person will not honor his father; you have rendered void the word of God because of the instruction of your elders. Hypocrites, Isaiah prophesied beautifully about you, saying, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. In vain they worship me, teaching teachings precepts of men.'"
The original source is Mark (7: 1-12), though, as John Meier puts it, "Matthew abbreviates, adds to, and inverts the Markan text." That's because Matthew has similar priorities, but takes a somewhat different tack to advance his argument.
Chapter 15 begins with an investigative team which has been sent out from the head office in Jerusalem to investigate the "transgressing"--parabainousin--of the oral law, a law not contained in the scriptures themselves but rather one that was formulated by the early pharisees which stipulated that hands should be washed before eating in order for people to purify themselves from any object they might have touched that was unclean.
The pharisees, incidentally, claimed that, in addition to the written law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, God had also given an "oral law" to Moses, an "oral law" which only they, the pharisees, knew.
In true rabbinical style, Jesus counters their argument by accusing them of "transgressing"--same word--not merely oral tradition, but the very "commandment of God"--not merely breaching an "oral law" of the pharisees' own definition, in other words, but breaking a commandment of God, a commandment recognized by every faction within Judaism as being part of the "ten words," what we call the "ten commandments."
The specific commandment Jesus has in mind is the injunction to honor father and mother. Jesus then refers to the practice of someone dedicating property to the temple, and thus withdrawing it from 'secular' use." This would have the effect of not letting your parents benefit from its value. (The Greek phrase is difficult, but it means something like: "A gift from me (to God) by which you (the parents) might have been assisted.")
It is a deft argument. Who would not put the needs of their parents above the financial needs of the already rich Temple? Moreover, it puts the pharisees on the side of the argument that must have made them uncomfortable. The pharisees, too, were critical of certain practices of the Temple. Jesus has just put them on the same side as the Sadducees and the wealthy families of Jerusalem.
This is yet another variation on a common theme of Jesus, namely: That ritual and religious actions are, or should be, trumped by compassion and mercy. Matthew ups the ante from Mark. Mark says that the commandment about honoring parents comes from Moses, but Matthew says the pharisees, by making mere oral traditions more important than the law of God, have "voided" the word of God in scripture.
Then, Jesus launches into a rousing condemnation of the pharisees--"hypocrites," he called them, and topped it off by citing the prophet Isaiah about the nature of hypocrisy, which is saying one thing while their heart, their understanding of reality, is in a different place. Their worship means nothing--mere "vanity"--because they teach human traditions. Matthew has found the pharisees wanting both in terms of law and prophets.
10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.* And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ 15But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ 16Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’
Translation: And he called the crowd to him and said to them, "Hear and comprehend: It is not what goes into the mouth that renders a person unclean, but what comes out of a mouth that renders unclean." Then, drawing near, the disciples said to him, "Do you know that the pharisees, hearing the word, were scandalized?" But he answered, saying, "Every plant which my father in heaven has not planted will be uprooted. Forgive them. The blind ones are leaders of the blind. If a blind one might lead another blind one, both will fall into a pit." But Peter answered him saying, "Explain to us this parable." But he said, "And you do not have understanding? Do you not perceive that all that goes into the mouth proceeds into the belly and is cast out into the toilet? But the things that come out of the mouth come forth from the heart and this makes the man unclean. For out the heart comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, illicit sex, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man."
Preparing the way for the inclusion of gentiles: At this point, Jesus summons the crowds, saying, "Hear, and bring this together in your minds: Not food going in, but evil coming out is what defiles a person." Defilement meant being unfit for fellowship with God and his people. Only evil can do this, Jesus says, and certainly not food.
The disciples came to Jesus and told him that the pharisees had totally freaked when they heard what Jesus had said. One senses worry on the part of the disciples. After all, Jesus has just said that what you eat doesn't matter. The pharisees would have been stunned at the very idea. The disciples themselves must have considered this exceedingly dangerous territory upon which to tread. They report that the pharisees are "scandalized."
The pharisees were indeed "scandalized" because they immediately, and correctly, understood what Jesus had done. Not only had Jesus dissed the necessity of washing hands as mere oral tradition, Jesus followed that by setting aside the food laws, i.e. what you could eat and what you couldn't. The food laws, unlike oral tradition, were actually in scripture.
This was a necessary step, however, because the food laws created an absolute barrier to contact with gentiles. In order to reach out to gentiles, something would have to be done about the food laws, so Jesus cancelled them out entirely. Having done this, the stage is now set for outreach to gentiles.
Jesus tells the disciples not to worry too much because what God plants will last, and what God doesn't plant will be uprooted. The church at the time of Matthew's writing (c. AD 80) would have understood this to mean that the church, the community of Jesus, was the planting of God, but pharisaic rabbinical Judaism--the tradition that won the power struggle in Judaism after the fall of the Temple in AD 70--was not the planting of God.
But don't worry about it too much, Jesus says. In fact, "forgive them." (The NRSV translates aphete as "let them go," which is probably about right, but I'm of the view that aphete ought to be translated as "forgive" where possible.) Let them go. Forgive them. They are merely the blind leading the blind.
Peter wants an explanation. Matthew changes Mark again here. Where Mark says the disciples ask the question, Matthew makes it Peter, which is consistent with the generally prominent role played by Peter throughout Matthew's gospel.
Jesus focuses on the mouth. What goes in the mouth proceeds on through the body. What comes out of a mouth comes from the heart and proceeds out into the world where it does evil. (Jesus appears to anticipate Freud's formulation of the id by about 1800 years.)
The sins Jesus ticks off basically follow the order of the Ten Commandments, except that illicit sex and lying both get mentioned twice. These are real problems and real offenses, says Jesus, not like something as insignificant as whether or not you washed your hands.
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just 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.’23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
Translation: And leaving that place, Jesus went back to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came forth (and) cried out, saying, "Have mercy for me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is possessed by a bad demon." But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came requesting him, saying, "Send her away for she cries out after us." He answered, saying, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt to him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered saying, "It is not excellent to take the bread of children and throw to the dogs." But she said, "Yes, Lord, and for the dogs eat from the crumbs, the ones falling from the table of their lords." Then Jesus answered and said to her, "Woman, your faith is great. Let it happen for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed from that hour.
Inclusion of the gentiles: Having cleared the way for contact with gentiles by removing the largest barrier toward their inclusion, Jesus went to gentile territory. Tyre and Sidon were both ancient phoenician ports. After Alexander's conquest, c. 332 BC, Tyre became a predominantly Greek city.
"Behold!" says Matthew. A woman seems to burst on the scene, crying out the correct liturgical words: Kyrie eleison, "Lord, have mercy on me." She even tops it off with "Son of David," an acknowledgement that she recognizes Jesus as Jewish, perhaps even the Jewish messiah.
Mark has "syrophoenician" woman, which Matthew changes to "Canaanite." The Canaanites were the ones living in the land of Israel when Joshua led the Hebrews into what, for them, was the Promised Land. For the temerity of resisting this intrusion, the Canaanites became bitter enemies of the Hebrews.
But that had been long before. Well over a millenium--a thousand years!--had passed since the Canaanite-Hebrew struggles. The word "Canaanite" had long fallen out of general use. Matthew deliberately resurrects that word in order to underline the outsider status of the woman--not only is she a woman, not only a foreigner, not only unclean, but an ancient enemy besides!
Jesus did not answer her a word--nothing, zip, nada. (In the honor/shame culture of that time, acknowledging the woman would also acknowledge that she had some kind of claim on you.) The disciples are often troubled by these kinds of interruptions and their default position always seems to be to get rid of the interruption. Naturally, they want to send the woman away.
Jesus responds with a statement that sounds formulaic: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." It reads like a formal statement of self-understanding. The woman replies with a plea from the heart. She falls to her knees and begs, "Lord, help me!"
Jesus is not yet moved. Jews of the day often referred to gentiles as dogs, and Jesus does so here. "It is not beautiful--kalos--to take the bread of children and throw it to the dogs." Ouch! In his version of this story, Mark says, "Let the children be fed first," which implies that maybe, just maybe, there might be some bread for others. Matthew drops this introductory sentence, which makes Jesus' remark come across even harsher than in Mark.
The woman, however, will not be dismissed so easily. "Yes, Lord," she says, appearing to agree with Jesus. She even appears to grant the primacy of Israel. Then, however, she moves beyond that to turn Jesus' analogy in her own direction. Let's go with that table image, she says. Eventually, some crumbs are going to fall to the floor. We'll take those.
Jesus responds. For the first time, he is now said to be speaking directly "to her". He says, "Woman, great is your faith." This is the only time in Matthew's gospel where anyone's faith is termed "great." The disciples (read: the church) are quite regularly informed that they are people of "little faith." But the Canaanite, the ancient enemy, the foreigner, the woman--her faith is megale, "great." Her daughter was healed "from that hour."
It is the only time in scripture that Jesus loses an argument, and he loses it to a woman who was a triple loser herself--woman, foreigner, and ancient enemy.