“Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”
— St. Augustine
“Unto the word of God, being, in respect of that end for which God ordained it, perfect, exact, and absolute in itself, we do not add reason as a supplement of any maim or defect therein, but as a necessary instrument, without which we could not reap by the Scripture’s perfection that fruit and benefit which it yieldeth.”
— Richard Hooker (16th century Anglican divine)
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 was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps on crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came, kneeling before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right 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 in that hour.
An old pastor of mine used to say, that the teachings of Jesus in the gospels are so perfect, that you can never find the words Jesus should have said. Jesus always says just the right thing at the right time. And I think most of us would agree with that. That is, until we read what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, and then we think, ‘gosh Jesus, I wish you hadn’t said that!’
Here Jesus resists healing a woman’s daughter because, he says, it’s not right to take the children’s bread (Israel’s bread) and throw it to the dogs (the Canaanites). What on earth can he mean by that? In light of our country’s history and the outburst of racist nationalism we just saw, it’s hard for us not to hear that statement as anything less than racially biased.
What’s more, it’s easy to see how some racist group, claiming to be Christian, might try to use this passage to support their evil beliefs. I think we can be sure that some do. And, on the other hand – the very far other hand – I have seen liberal critics of Christianity point to this passage as an example of the way that the Bible promotes racist colonialism.
And, for those reasons, I think this passage is a powerful example of why the church needs to be very wise in how we interpret Scripture. And that fits in well with what we’re doing today, because we’re starting a sermon series to look at what it means to be Anglican. And the topic for this week is: Anglicans and Biblical Authority – how do we as an Anglican church derive our teaching from the Bible? So, this very difficult gospel passage offers us a case study by which we can examine how we read the Bible like Anglicans.
Anglicans & Scripture
So, we’ll start by taking a brief look at the somewhat unique way that Anglicans derive doctrine from Scripture. This is my two-minute lecture on Anglicans and Scripture.
Anglicans traditionally see Scripture as the revealed word of God and the supreme authority for the church, and we believe that Scripture is clear in its most important and central doctrines (like the deity of Christ, the Trinity, or the bodily resurrection of Jesus).
But Anglicans also recognize that there are less central issues of faith that are less clearly taught in the Bible and about which reasonable Christians might disagree. How is Jesus present in the Lord’s Supper? Should we baptize infants? Those are tricky questions. Our Baptist friends down the road may not agree with us on those.
In those kind of cases, Anglicans look to Scripture, but also employ reason and tradition to aid our understanding. Reason and tradition tend to act like a pair of spectacles for us. We use our God-given intellects and the long, recorded history of Christian teaching as lenses through which we interpret Scripture and use it as the foundation for our doctrine.
OK, end of lesson. That’s a bit abstract. Let’s get practical and do some application. Let’s use those two lenses to read and interpret the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.
The Lens of Tradition
Let’s start by looking through the lens of tradition. Two short things we can say about this.
First, to us this story might seem to be about racist exclusion. But we actually have a few commentaries on this passage from the early church, and they don’t see it like that. They see it as a story about racial inclusion. Jesus’ healing for the Canaanite woman is treated as a kind of paradigm for how the idolatrous, non-Jewish peoples of the world can be grafted into the people of God by faith.
Second, the question of racism is addressed in some early church writings, and there, the message is clear. Around 195AD, Clement of Alexandria wrote this:
“Scripture teaches us not to wrong anyone belonging to another race or enslave them. For there is no other reason to justify such a thing than differences of race, but that is no reason at all…. We admit that the same nature exists in every race, and the same virtue.”
So, we see that the early church rejected racism and saw the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman as a paradigm of racial inclusion. So, if that’s what the Spirit-filled early church – which was just downstream from the apostles – was saying, that should bear on our reading of this passage. Any reading that sees this as a story of racism and exclusion should be regarded with skepticism.
So, that’s the lens of tradition. The second lens is the lens of reason.
The Lens of Reason
How does reason help us understand this passage? Well, reason gives us some helpful tools. It gives us logic. It gives us historical inquiry, archaeology, and text criticism. And it takes us beyond a surface reading to see things in the story that you might otherwise miss.
So, let’s do a bit of that, right now. And let’s start with a bit of history.
Matthew introduces the woman as a Canaanite. But historians tell us that the Canaanites were no longer a distinct people group in the time of Jesus. Calling her Canaanite would be like calling a modern Irish person Celtic. It harks back to the history of the people. That is an important clue that this story has a lot to do with the history of Israel and Canaan.
That history shows us that the Canaanites were one of the most ancient and notorious enemies of Israel. They were the idolatrous neighbors of Israel who had a seductive influence on God’s people. Time and time again they caused God’s people to turn away from their Creator and Savior and to worship other gods with a kind of national addiction.
This national addiction was often aided and abetted by Israel’s kings, the sons of David, whose diplomatic and marital relationships with the Canaanites led them to import the worship of Canaanite gods into Israel. There are many examples, but the most notorious is that of the evil queen Jezebel, a princess of Sidon, who encouraged her husband, king Ahab, to persecute Yahweh’s prophets and promote Baal worship in Israel.
And the problem with idolatry isn’t merely religious. Idol worship eroded the social fabric of Israel, leading to social injustice, moral decline, and evil practices like child sacrifice. Things for which God ultimately had to discipline Israel and exile them to Babylon.
With that back-story in mind, we can start to understand why Jesus doesn’t immediately respond to this woman’s cries for help. As the son of David, he is rightly cautious in his interaction with her. But note: Jesus refuses his disciples’ request to send her away. He’s not quick to make a covenant with her, but he does not immediately reject her either.
That backstory helps explain Jesus’ initial silence, but the words that come next are much more difficult. Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and then tells her, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch.
It sounds like Jesus is rejecting this woman simply because she is not Jewish. But let’s take a closer look at the words Jesus uses.
He first calls Israel lost sheep. If you know anything about sheep, this is not a compliment. They are a stubborn animal that often goes astray and gets helplessly lost. Then he applies the word “dog” to the Canaanites. But the Greek word for “dog” there is not the common word, which implies a street mongrel. It’s the special word for beloved indoor pets.
Neither of those metaphors are flattering. But both picture God as the concerned lord of the people. God is the shepherd of the sheep and the father of the house in which both pets and children are in his charge – though the children rightly have priority of parental concern.
What’s more, in the Old Testament, the point about the Canaanites is not that Israel is racially superior or even racially distinct – in fact, the Bible tells us that two Canaanite women were ancestors of king David and Jesus – Tamar and Rahab. The point is that the Canaanites are just the kind of people Israel will become if they start to worship idols.
God doesn’t say, ‘You are so much better than them.’ God says, ‘You’re just like them. The only thing that separates you is that I have chosen you. Are you going to follow me?’
Israel is called to be holy people, a city on a hill, which encourages outsiders to follow God. Jesus then was sent to fulfill that mission by setting things right with Israel, so that Israel will truly become a light to the nations through him. Then, after his resurrection he will send his disciples out to all nations.
But the Canaanite woman is not deterred by this priority. She knows that the undeserved love of God in Jesus is the only thing that can help her.
She hears Jesus’ blunt and difficult words of truth and she owns them. “Yes Lord,” she says. Yes, Lord, you are right. I know the people to whom you have been sent, and I know I’m not one of them. I know that I come from peoples who worship other gods and practice immoral customs. And in my life, I’ve taken part of all of that.
Her “yes” is a confession; but it is also a contradiction. “Yes Lord,” it is right to share with me because “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their lord’s table.” I’m not asking for the children’s bread, only give me what they leave over and that will be enough for me.
Jesus is amazed by this statement. And the reason he’s surprised is that he has so rarely seen faith like this. The faith of the Pharisees is usually based on performance. They’re always trying to earn the favor of God and men by their ritual adherence.
The faith of Jesus’ own disciples is not much better. It’s often marked by a desire to be impressive. James and John want to sit on Jesus’ right and left in glory, and Jesus says, “You just don’t get it.” Peter sees Jesus walking on water and says, “I can do that too!” And we’re amazed that Peter is able to take a few steps, but when his eyes leave his Lord he falters and sinks. And Jesus says “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
The faith that Jesus does not praise is faith that tries to earn God’s favor with performance. The faith that comes to God with hands full of supposed merits, to court his favor. That kind of faith treats God like an idol, trying to oblige Him to give you what you want.
The faith that the Canaanite woman offers Jesus is nothing like this. Hers is a faith that is only remarkable in its humility and in her persistent focus on Jesus as her only possible source of help.
That is the faith that wins Jesus’ praise. That is the only faith that Jesus calls “great” in the gospel of Matthew. The faith that Jesus praises is empty-handed faith, faith that trusts in the grace of God, rather than clinging to any work or virtue of its own.
I hope we see that Scripture, reason, and tradition show us that, in God’s kingdom, none of us can claim racial superiority or superiority of any kind. That is why in the liturgy of the table, we pray words inspired by this Canaanite woman:
“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord, who always delights in showing mercy.”
The Canaanite woman’s faith is a great witness to us. And the power of her witness is that her faith and humility are a reflection of the faith and humility of our Lord.
The Canaanite woman accepted a place under the table, but Jesus accepted a place under the ground. He endured the cross and was lowered into the grave, so that we might be raised to new life with him.
My prayer for us, as an Anglican church, is that – by the grace of God and the power of the Holy – Scripture, reason, and tradition will always point us to that great truth Spirit.
Lord, as the apostle Paul reminds us, You “desire all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” I pray that sure knowledge of what you have done for us on the cross would give us the humility to serve you faithfully and, again as Paul says, to consider others better than ourselves. I pray that you would give us the courage and wisdom to stand against racism and hate in our communities and our nation, and to boldly proclaim your gospel as the only ultimate cure for racism in the world. We pray in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.