When I was an undergraduate in Sri Lanka I was shocked by what a friend whispered to me during a prayer meeting. “I know which of the boys I can marry,” she confided. I looked at her blankly. While everyone’s eyes were closed, she went round the circle indicating with her eyes, whispering “him, not him, not him, him…I think him.” She was from a different ethnic group to me and I hadn’t a clue why she had decided this. So after the meeting I asked her. She told me that within two weeks of arriving, she knew who she could marry. “How?” I asked her. “I asked the boys about their villages, so I know their caste.” I was aghast. I asked her how, as a Christian, caste had any part to play. She told me her parents would not let her marry a Christian of lower caste so she was just being practical. Another friend of mine fell in love with a Korean American girl while they were both at Oxford, only to find out that her father, a Pastor in a Korean church in America, would not accept him because he was racially different. His girlfriend was forced to choose between him and her family – and she chose her family. My university friend of course married a lad of suitable caste, chosen by her parents.
Identity and pride, prejudices and insecurities are part of human life. Most societies define themselves by a them and us dynamic – as Sri Lanka does. At the heart of today’s Gospel story is a drama about identity and prejudice. About who has a right to God’s mercy and who does not. The Gentile Canaanite woman cries “Have mercy on me.” The essence of the story is whether she is entitled and deserves Jesus’ grace and mercy.
Jesus’ response to this desperate woman seems completely out of character: Jesus never rejected people in need. In Matthew chapter 8 he willingly healed the Gentile Centurion’s servant. So what is going on here?
Commentators have varied interpretations: Jesus, despite being God’s Son, had acquired the human racist prejudices of his time; Jesus was being persuaded to change his mind; Jesus really had come to save the lost sheep of Israel; or Jesus was testing the woman to see if she had faith.
Unfortunately, when we read words in print, we lose the tone and emotions of a conversation. Perhaps if we had been there, we might understand better. At university, studying Shakespeare plays as literature was quite different to actually seeing a performance. In a live performance, the text was transformed with completely different angles, bringing new meaning to what we had read.
Imagine this gospel story dramatized. What was Jesus’ expression… was he smiling with the woman? How did the disciples react and what was the woman’s expressions? What were the gestures …for instance did Jesus shrug and look at the disciples as he voiced what they – and all Jews – thought?
How can WE understand what was really going on here? Fortunately, there are some clues.
In the Gospels, Jesus constantly demonstrated the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth. He broke down barriers and taboos of his time, and overturned established identities and social dynamics. Jesus constantly challenges and overturns perceptions in his encounters like that with the Samaritan woman at the well. In today’s story we have a Jewish Man – the Messiah, even – discussing faith with a woman, a Gentile and Canaanite. Perhaps he was encouraging the woman to challenge Jewish assumptions – to demonstrate her faith that the Good News was for her too?
But how did the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel understand this story? The Gospels were not random collections of anecdotes aimed at the world in general. They were written for specific, first century audiences, and they have a purpose and a message. So what was Matthew’s purpose in including this strange story?
Mark’s gospel was written first, and Matthew takes the story from him. Mark describes the woman as Syrophoenician, “a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.” Yet Matthew deliberately chooses the archaic description of “Canaanite.” He is evoking historical conflicts, and the strong social barriers between Jews and this Canaanite, non-Jew – and sets the scene for Jesus to turn things upside down.
The 1st century Christian Jews were a clannish, insular bunch (not unlike us!) and throughout his Gospel, Matthew demonstrates to the new Christian Jewish community that the Gospel is for all nations – not just for them. His Gospel ends with Jesus’ Great Commission to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Matthew is declaring to early believers that despised Gentiles – even a Canaanite woman – can be people of faith, whom Jesus himself accepted. The first century Jews, like us, had forgotten that God required them to welcome foreigners and aliens, that God wanted to bless all nations through Israel, that He wanted them to be a light to the nations.
There is another clue in where Matthew chooses to put this story. Jesus’ healing of this despised, Gentile woman’s daughter comes after an important discussion and lesson. Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees and his disciples about what made someone clean and unclean in God’s sight. His encounter with the Canaanite woman becomes a practical demonstration that Jewish prejudices against Others, as defiled people, were being overturned in His Kingdom.
But there is more. Soon after the encounter with the Canaanite woman, in the very same chapter, Jesus goes on to heal and then feed four thousand Gentiles – who saw Jesus’ miracles, and “praised the God of Israel.” Within a single chapter, Matthew takes his Jewish audience from viewing Gentiles as unclean, to seeing them receive mercy and healing from Jesus – and even a miraculous meal, just like five thousand Jews did.
In our Old Testament story, Joseph could not have saved his people if the Gentile Egyptians had not accepted him despite being a foreigner, a prisoner, and a slave. Joseph was an outsider if ever there was one. The irony is that Joseph’s own people rejected him while the Egyptians accepted him, gave him a place, and later welcomed his family during the famine. God transformed Joseph’s identity – from rejected brother, prisoner and slave – to ruler over Egypt and saviour of his people. He lost his identity as a favoured son, yet God gave him another identity.
Our identities can be tied to ethnicity and culture, to social status and class, our job, or even our educational qualifications. I remember the excitement when someone first introduced me by a title! We often cling to these fragile, temporary markers of identity. Yet they can be lost so easily. When I married and moved to Belfast, I struggled with losing many social markers that had helped me define myself. Suddenly, I was a foreigner, an outsider, a brown face, someone who didn’t belong. I would wake up in the morning and say “Who am I? I don’t know who I am.” Paul would reply that it was too early to talk philosophy. It took time to realise I was still myself – even without my social markers.
Like Matthew’s Christian audience, Christians today can be prejudiced towards others. Our identity becomes a means of excluding “them.” Or perhaps a means of our exclusion. We have our own brand of “Canaanites” – those of a different community, faith, culture, race, status, those who push our buttons. Perhaps this was a factor in last year’s Brexit vote. Perhaps in excluding the “other”, we might reject the Josephs of our day!
I remember a friend despairing when her son left home, because her identity was completely tied up in being his mum. We want to be recognised – even indispensable – because it gives us a sense of self and place in society. This is not wrong, but it is fragile. For if our identity is not really rooted in God, then we can feel threatened or displaced when we lose it in some way. As I did.
Our passage from Romans talks of the Jews’ insecurity about their place in the new order of Christ’s Kingdom. They had always been God’s chosen people. Were they now going to be rejected? Paul’s response to their insecurity is interesting: everyone stands equal before God because all of us need God’s mercy, because we are all disobedient. As the Bible puts it elsewhere, we are all like sheep who have gone astray.
The unknown Canaanite woman’s words that have been incorporated into the prayer of humble access we pray before Communion. It captures our real identity as fallen people – those accepted by God’s grace:
“We do not presume to come to this thy table trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies…for we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under your table.”
The Jews in Jesus’ time not only felt entitled to God’s grace, they believed the Gentiles were excluded from it. But none of us are entitled to God’s grace or excluded from it. It is the mercy of God, as the Canaanite woman rightly recognised.
Our insecurities and prejudices can be the root of animosity between nations, races, communities, families, colleagues, and even Christians who are different to us. So where does our true identity and security lie? It is a good question to ask from time to time.
I believe it lies in Christ. Not in those markers of the world we often embrace as our identity: our racial background, our professions, our status, our positions, our relationships. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, in Christ, we are New Creations with a new identity that is secure and eternal.