The Syro-Phoenician / Canaanite Woman Matthew 15 and Mark 7
by Sheila Rosenthal
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This passage creates all sorts of horrors for the nice people who want Jesus to be a nice person for it presents those who champion such a chap with an apparent reality of a sharp and contentious Jesus. You can almost hear them squirming as they wrestle with the words in front of them which doesn’t fit the mould they’ve put around Christ.
The best that can be done is to either see Jesus as compromising on His mission values of going only to the Jews or re-interpreting the word dogs for puppies thus making the image a little softer, inclusive, cute even.
There is, of course, another way through this and it involves contextualising the scene, amalgamating the stories of Mark and Matthew and remembering to think about the picture we have in front of our eyes. So, this paper does just that; it presents us with the scenes, the back-drop and the panoply of reactions, games, non-verbal communications and underlying lessons that Jesus stage-manages.
Act 1, scene 1.
The context in both Gospels is that of purity and what really soils a person. Jesus tells the disciples that it’s what comes out of a person’s heart that counts in the eyes of God and in the list are slander and false witness, and the general catch-all of evil intentions. The idea behind the word ‘defile’ is associated with ritual perhaps in most people’s minds but it’s used here by Jesus in the context of the sewer and the picture that the association evokes has more to do with defecation than purification. These actions – slander, false witness, murder and so on – soil our souls. Do these things, says Jesus, and you are disgusting in your own eyes as well as those around you; clean up your act.
Scene 2; nothing learned
With these words still ringing in their ears, Mark tells us that Jesus goes off to a quiet place where He doesn’t want to be disturbed. We may safely assume that His disciples are with Him for they tell Jesus later to get the pesky woman, who’s just hassled her way into their privacy, to go away because she’s bothering them. They may be being protective of Jesus of course, trying to cut Him some space after a heavy session of ministry: this is a charitable interpretation. A possibly more accurate one would be to tell it like it is for both Matthew and Mark have taking the trouble to identify this woman’s origins.
This woman is the worst kind, she’s not only a woman she’s also not a Jewish woman. She is Foreign and all the racism that lies beneath the surface is palpable in the room. She’s not welcome into their brood of men relaxing. And more than this, she’s a woman on a mission, like a terrier with a bone she has hold of an idea that Jesus is going to heal her daughter and no mere fishermen are going to stop her. The disciples bridle at the interference and cheek of this female infidel; how many prejudices can you fit into one room?
Scene 3: playing the game
Matthew tells us that the disciples asked Jesus to send her away because she keeps shouting after us. She a pain in the butt, a nuisance, embarrassing, dirty (because she’s Foreign), not welcome. She persists and appeals directly to Jesus – Lord, help me. Mark says she bows at His feet, making herself visibly invisible by lowering her gaze and her pasture she dominates this scene which, choreographically speaking, resonates with the woman caught in adultery in John 8; both are on the floor at His feet. Around her the disciples watch on as Jesus engages her.
This is where those of us who get the idea of performance criticism have an edge, for we are not just reading a scene, we’re watching it. The disciples, maybe some standing threateningly are around her as she bustles through and past them to get to Jesus. An Unclean Foreign Woman has touched them on her way to speak to their Lord. These are the audience to Jesus’ performance. They watch as she and He dialogue with each other and what He says to her hits the sweet spot of their prejudice. ‘I’m not here for you, I’m here for Us, the Jews. Go away Foreign Woman.’ Maybe the disciples look smug at this point and feel justified, buoyed up, vindicated, in the club, superior, aggressive.
But this is also a moment where, as with other women in the Gospels, Jesus has established a rapport with this woman, not the flirty relationship of John 4 but the collusive relationship of John 8. Too often for us to ignore, Jesus works with women to teach any who look on, how God works with us, without prejudice or issues. The immediacy of this ‘cottoning-on’ to what Jesus is up to comes across best on stage because we see the stuff that words do not present. If all we look at are the words then all we see is more of the same -confusion about intent and meaning. But enact or embody, or even, learn to recognise what your imagination is showing you, and the view comes into focus. She, the Canaanite, tumbles to the game that Jesus is playing and she works with Him – ‘Yes, but even the dogs get the crumbs under the table – and You’re the Bread of Life, crumbs are all I need.’
A choreography of teaching
When Jesus works with her, maybe He picks her up off the floor where she’s kneeling and brings her up to standing as He does so often with people He has forgiven or healed. One to one, face to face, person to person.
When Jesus tells her that her faith has healed her daughter the disciples are slapped in their faces with their prejudices. Jesus has made real and brought home the lesson of what spoils a person and which the disciples, despite what they have heard time and again from Christ, despite what they have had explained to them in words of one syllable, despite seeing Jesus in action time and again with the outsider, the other, have spectacularly failed to learn. The shock, disgust, disdain, aggression on their faces registers with us and with them as they see what they should have seen when the woman walked into the room or started to bother them. They reflect our behaviour too and we can see that they are learning is a lesson for us too.
What Jesus has effectively said to the disciples is ‘I have spoken your language to this woman; now, you start speaking mine.’ This episode is not about Jesus being only for the Jews but about exactly the opposite. The disciples are the ones who are being taught here, not the woman nor Jesus (as some commentators have it). Jesus is exposing His disciples to a mirror of self-reflection and the sight is the ugly one of a group treating an individual in a way that is far from the way of Christ that they have been taught.
Biblical Performance Criticism in full flow!
This interpretation only becomes apparent when the disciples are brought in or reckoned with as part of the scene and shown up for what they are. Only in performance (or descriptive recreation) can this aspect of lesson-teaching be perceived. With the disciples in view as audience or chorus we see that this story is cleverer than we might have given it credit for. It is a lesson in seeing and perceiving actions which speak louder than words for the words here do not present the scene, only the dialogue in the scene – and words are rarely the whole of the narrative story. Indeed, the word ‘narrative’, so popular of late, should be being replaced with something which suggests ‘story-other-than-words-alone’. ‘Narrative’ suggests ‘narrator’ and surreptitiously forefronts the dialogue element at the expense of the total story. Thus we lose crucial and critical parts of the event – as can be seen from the thrashing around of those trying to make Jesus’ words fit their understanding of Jesus (which turns out to be the right picture after all).
Scene 4; all shall be well and all shall be well.
The woman has gained what she came for, the disciples have got more than they bargained for. Maybe, if one was to stage this, one of the disciples might approach the woman and say sorry, offer her food and wine for her daughter, ask after her name and wish her well. Maybe Jesus embraces her and offers her bread and maybe the Messiah is seen yet again to come bringing joy and healing and teaching and forgiveness.
BPC offers a way into a story that goes deeper into the structure of an episode than the conventional ways of ‘theologising’ does. Words, their meanings and provenance, are only part of the story. The rest of the story comes from action, unwritten data and interaction which staging is best placed to deliver. The episode of the Canaanite woman is a good example of the benefits of this holistic approach.