09 August 2006

The Canaanite Woman: Agent of Change?

18th Week OT: Jeremiah 31.1-7 and Matthew 15.21-28
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Is the Canaanite woman a revolutionary? A paradigm-breaking agent for radical change in the Church? Yes, I believe she is.

Walking along with his disciples, Jesus is confronted by this Gentile, this unclean woman who pleads for his attention and his help with her demon possessed daughter. The disciples, annoyed by the interruption and likely frightened by the prospect of becoming unclean themselves, beg Jesus to dismiss her, to put her in her place by sending her away. Jesus speaks to the woman, telling her exactly what the disciples expect him to say, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” You can almost see Jesus cocking his eye toward his students, watching for their predictable reaction to his expected rebuke of the woman’s insolence. Undeterred, the woman simply pleads for help—a raw outpouring of humility and need, of despair and want: “Lord, help me.”

For some this passage is about the man Jesus being confronted by his cultural and social limitations: the woman teaches Jesus a lesson—her professed need and desperate faith changes his mind about his mission; or it is about Jesus challenging the social structures of the Jewish culture, “crossing boundaries” and “engaging difference” in order to show his disciples that the gospel is really about radical inclusivity and acceptance.

It is not surprising that this passage read in this way was used to defend the “ordinations” of twelve women on a boat in Pennsylvania: if the Canaanite woman could open Jesus’ mind to be more inclusive of difference, then surely the Church can change its mind about ordaining women to the priesthood!

So, is the Canaanite woman an agent of change? A paradigm-breaking revolutionary? Yes, she is. But not in the way the standard feminist interpretation wants us to buy.

A mother with a demon possessed daughter, the woman pleads with Jesus for his help: “Lord, help me.” Jesus, again with an eye on his disciples, predictably replies that the children’s food is not for the dogs, that is, the gospel is for the Jews not the Gentiles. And the woman—desperate and determined—retorts: “Even the dogs get the scrapes from the table.” Now, at this point Jesus could rebuke her for daring to tell him his business, sending her away as the disciples wished. But instead he decides to show this despairing mother the fruit of her trust in him: “O woman, great is your faith!” And her daughter was healed.

The Canaanite woman is a exemplar of radical change, a paradigm-breaker precisely b/c she has faith in Jesus; she trusts that he is who he says he is; and she is willing to submit humbly to his authority as Lord. Her open confession of faith—in fact, her preaching of the Word!—stands as a witness for the disciples about who Jesus is and what it is that they have been charged with doing: publicly proclaiming that Jesus is Lord—openly confessing a great faith in a powerful King and compassionate Father.

She shows the disciples that in faith the dogs can become the children of the Lord.


  1. Thanks for that interpretation, Fr. Philip. I wasn't sure how to look at that segment of the Gospel. The Lord was testing the reactions of his apostles all the time, then, each time teaching them something they would never have considered before.

  2. In this passage the Greek word is kunarion, pup; not kuon, dog. Most languages don't translate it as 'dog', but as whelp or puppy. Doing so gives the passage a more accurately affectionate tone than saying 'dog,' which has much meaner connotations in Scripture. I think the 12 expected Jesus to say 'dog' (as they would have said, and thought), and were a bit nonplussed when Jesus said 'puppy' instead.