There seems to be an ‘underground river’ connecting today’s scripture readings written a decade and centuries apart from each other. Isaiah wrote in the second half of the 8th century BCE, when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were threatened by the invading armies of Assyria. Paul wrote to communities in Rome about 57 CE when Gentile Christians were increasing and Jewish Christians were in the minority. Matthew’s gospel was probably written after 70 CE when the Roman military that occupied Israel, crushed a local uprising, and in doing so, murdered many in Jerusalem, dispersed others and destroyed their Temple.
Although names and social location are different, it seems we of 2023 CE experience similar events: missiles of invading armies destroy homes and houses of worship; local people fear being overrun by an increasing number of migrants; internal rivalries between powerful military leaders vanquish their own people caught in the middle and destroy their cities.
Within this unsettling context of then and now, the scripture writers give us this ‘river message’, deep and enduring, about ‘foreigners,’ ‘Gentiles’, a ‘Canaanite woman,’ all of whom were considered ‘outsiders’ by the Israelite and Jewish Christian communities of the time. When events are overwhelming and threaten our security, the outsiders were often blamed for personal and communal misfortune, for unwanted change and economic hardship in biblical times, as in our own times.
In Jesus’ time, there was deep animosity between the Canaanites (the “out” group), and Israelites (the “in” group – the chosen people.) This hatred probably existed since the time of Joshua when his armies entered Canaan about 1250 BCE. In the Book of Joshua, we read that the Israelites conquered the Canaanites who worshipped false gods and seized their land – the Promised Land – which is present day Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and parts of Lebanon and Syria. The woman of today’s reading is called Canaanite by Matthew and Syro-Phoenician by Mark; in either circumstance, she was ‘pagan.’ She was not Jewish, did not worship like Jesus and his disciples, her accent was probably different, and God was not on her side.
Nevertheless, this unnamed Canaanite woman was persistent and crossed strict religious and social boundaries to save her daughter (we cannot underestimate the power of a mother’s love in human and non-human creatures.) The disciples wanted the woman gone, “get rid of her,” and Jesus did not answer her at first, “he gave her no response.”
From the reading, it seems Jesus understood he was called only to save his own people of Israel. He did not cure outsiders. However, Jesus changed his mind about the woman, and cured her daughter – a miracle he was initially reluctant to perform. Although his first words were harsh, Jesus continued talking with the Canaanite woman face to face; he responded to her insistence and her faith and moved beyond seeing her as a ‘foreigner.’ By engaging the Canaanite woman, perhaps Jesus changed his understanding of himself, who he was, and his mission.
In the introduction to her book Hearts on Fire about the Maryknoll Sisters, Penny Lernoux recalls a reflection by Sister Barbara Hendricks, M.M.
Although the pioneer Maryknoll women could not have articulated it, they had become missioners because of ‘a desire, a compulsion, to search for the other… the one who lives at the other end of the world…it is only through that other person you find out who you really are. In the end you are searching for another dimension of yourself.’ p. xxxii
The poet, Henry W. Longfellow also echoes the ‘river message’ of today’s scriptures. “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering – enough to disarm all hostility.”
Sister Sue Rech, MM, is on mission in Arusha, Tanzania.
Illustration of Jesus and the Canaanite Woman by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib, c. 1684, Egypt, from the Walters Museum in Baltimore, MD, via Wikimedia Commons