October 19, 2017

Mark Shea: Jesus and the Canaanite Woman – Introduction to a Study

PHOTO: Tinou Bao

A reading from the gospel according to Matthew:

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 cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not fair 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! Let it be done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Mt 15:21–28)

This is, to be sure, a difficult text. Perhaps you have heard some variation on this style of interpretation:


I have problems with this interpretation of the story, but I think that at least the case can be made that Fr Martin’s gloss is within the pale of Catholic orthodoxy (as long as we include a lot of nuance and careful thinking). But saying that, I also think it highly likely that it will be misread and misunderstood badly.

Why? Because I have seen it done – and by a priest in a homily no less. I was on a Scouting trip and we stopped in at a local parish on our drive back from the boonies (what you Aussies call the Bush) and were treated to a homily on this text which informed the tender ears of our charges that, “Even Jesus had to learn to overcome his sin of racism”.

My jaw hit the floor. And I am not, I am morally certain, the only Catholic ever to hear such bushwah. That’s the thing about super-nuanced theology. It often has to be done. Sometimes it needs to be done for popular consumption (Exhibit A: the highly nuanced language of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which a billion Catholics say every Sunday).

But still and all, I think it advisable to be cautious because when you spread around tweets like Fr Martin’s the odds are very high that you will wind up with homilies like the one I heard. Yes, as we shall discuss, part of the proposition that Jesus is “true man” is the proposition that he really did learn things. But it is emphatically not true that he learned to repent his sins, for he had no sin to repent.

In the next few weeks, I want to spend some time unpacking this interesting story, as well as unpacking a variation on this increasingly common take on this story. I do so because it gives us a chance to explore a great deal of how to approach Scripture as a Catholic in union with the Tradition, as well as take a look at some of the fruits of contemporary biblical scholarship. In addition, it allows us a chance to confront some of what I consider to be problems with such scholarship. And it gives us a shot at grappling with this difficult text in particular in a way I think nourishing to the soul. Stick around and we will have some fun in the coming weeks!

Comments are closed.