How does one best care for marginalized people; those who have been isolated from community, stigmatized by society, and even neglected or wounded by the Church?
This question has dwelt within my soul. It has inspired me to study the Bible in deeper, more focused ways. It led me to seminary and while there, it lingered on. It led to me take courses that explored issues of individual and social brokenness that bred marginality and isolation. I asked hard questions within these courses, inquiries which could not be pacified by the prototypical Sunday school responses. I read, researched, and wrote on these issues, all in a diligent pursuit to answer this one question.
Along the way, I had a few revelatory moments, but I also became intrigued by the nameless Canaanite woman, a biblical character who I believe personifies everything I was wrestling with in Matthew 15: 21-28.
While theologians have correctly articulated how her interaction with Jesus foretells the Gentile inclusion into the mission and kingdom of God, this text has more to say to us than just this. First, a close reading of the text mandates that we ask a few questions; what are the scriptural implications of being a Canaanite, nameless, and the parent of a demon-possessed child?
Marginalization of the Canaanites
Biblical scholar Craig Keener says that the Canaanites are depicted as “the bitter biblical enemies of Israel whose paganism had often led Israel into idolatry.”[i] Another scholar writes, “[the nameless woman] is a member of the condemned Canaanites who is to be offered to the Lord as a whole burnt offering of purification of the land to God.”[ii]
However, this negative depiction of Canaanites is not the only legacy Scripture provides. In fact, two Canaanite women, Tamar and Rahab, are included in the direct genealogy of Jesus. This is significant because Tamar’s life symbolizes one of the most victimized scriptural realities, and Rahab illustrates one of the most unlikely characters of biblical faithfulness, not only because of her vocation, but also due to the marginalization and stigmas it caused.[iii]
The fact that these two women are Canaanites, yet directly included within the traceable lineage of Christ is not coincidental, nor is the fact that this nameless woman’s ethnic and gendered identity is also that of a Canaanite woman.
Through the incorporation of these women within the direct lineage of Christ, Scripture illustrates how Jesus literally becomes identified with their marginalization, and, as is the case with sin, takes on that marginalization.
Stigmatization of Demon Possession
We know the kind of social stigmatization that accompanied demon possession through the numerous New Testament accounts of those ostracized from society because of this label. Jesus, who is finally won over by this woman’s perseverance, faith, and insistence upon her child’s restoration at the end of this passage, refuses to abide by the commodifying logic of his culture, time, and place. Jesus not only heals the daughter, but provides restoration that far surpasses this woman’s request.
Through the restoration that Jesus grants, both the nameless Canaanite woman and her daughter are free to experience life anew socially, culturally, and relationally. The holistic nature of the restoration that Jesus provides not only liberates this woman’s daughter from demons, but also offers them both access, as well as all other Gentiles, to everlasting life with God.
Moreover, as this passage concludes, ethnicity no longer serves as a barrier to entering the kingdom of God. Those who were once far, are brought near. Canaanites are no longer to be seen or treated as bitter enemies (although many persist in seeing them this way due to depravity), but are now to be embraced as brothers and sisters. This is how Jesus cared for marginalized people, those isolated from community and stigmatized by society, and as the Church today, we are called to go and do likewise.[iv]
Go and Do Likewise
Empowered by the Spirit, we can resuscitate dry bones, renew hope, and foster new life, reconciled life with God and neighbor. But we must be willing to be transformed, to take on the mindset of Christ, to authentically do this work.
At the beginning of this passage, the disciples tell Jesus to send this nameless Canaanite woman away. Is this the way we are responding to marginalized women as the Church today; to the Tamars, Rahabs and women who feel nameless within our midst?
Do the Tamars of our day, women sexually abused and violated by those closest to them, see the Church as a place of restoration?
Do the Rahabs of our time, women stigmatized because of their vocation as prostitutes or other socially shunned work, feel welcomed, loved, and accepted within our midst?
Do defamed women, who feel nameless throughout society, still feel anonymous, unacknowledged, and unloved when they enter the Church, or are they known, empowered, and restored by the love of God that we embody and illuminate?
[i] Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 415.
[ii] Stephen Humphries-Brooks, “The Canaanite Woman in Matthew,” 141. Also see Judges 2:3-5; 21-23.
[iii] Matthew 1:3, 5.
[iv] Luke 10:37.
This article first appeared on the Covenant Church’s Commission on Biblical Gender Equality blog. You can check it out here.
“Is this the way we are responding to marginalized women as the Church today?”
Great question! Let’s ask those women.
Other sorts of women who are marginalized by many churches today – particularly the ones who place far too much emphasis on marriage, parenthood, and traditional gender roles – are those, such as myself, who are over the age of 40 who have never married or never had children.
Many churches are also rather ageist, in that once women get somewhere past their mid 30s or late 30s, churches sort of shuffle them off to the side.
I’ve read articles of churches who forced women who turned 35 or 40 to step down from long term roles as singers on stage during church services and so forth, and replaced these women with women who were in their twenties.
Women who are married but who do not have children also frequently say on blogs that they feel excluded by their churches, as do widows, never married Christian men, and divorced men and women.
I also see a lot of stigma in churches in regards to people who have mental health problems. Churches rarely address clinical depression or other, similar problems, and if they do mention them, it is to shame and blame people who are afflicted.
I was on the only single at my church by he time I was 19. The only unmarried girl in the church, and the last single girl I used to suit with, ignored me from the day she was engaged. However I met a group of singles, with several marrieds at a youth camp and was invited to their church. I had the closest relation ship with this group I have ever experienced, and, as some of them married, they stayed in the group and behaved like individuals with partners, not limpets attached to a rock!
We had a ministry to young and not so young adults, and I did eventually marry at 30, but I didn’t feel am overwhelming sense of loss, rather satisfaction and acceptance from this group. After I married, we stayed in this group, and dud things just as before, we behaved as individuals, but acknowledged our relationship.
How I wish the church was treating women anywhere nearly as well as this whole church family did, an amazing place where I learned many lessons about all relationships, and grew so much. 30 years later, it still fills me with joy to think of it…egalitarian to the eyeballs…..wow!
Thankyou for reminding us of all these marginalized categories. Married christians can come across as so uncaring and sometimes even make value judgments about those who have never married, as if it must be because there’s something wrong with them. This is not acceptable in the body of Christ! It leads to the loss of amazing gifts in the church. Maybe this is the Lord’s current choice for them – even if it is sometimes a hard road that requires them to be imitators of – Christ and Paul, no less.
I have several friends who married later in life.
No-one should ever be looked down on or ignored. Eph 4 is clear about EVERY member being able to function according to his/her gifts.
Since becoming egalitarian, my husband and I have paid very careful attention to singles in our church. Our children’s ministry leader is over 40 and has never married – and recently we had her preach on her own in the family service. Her many years of selfless service with the kids means she is far better versed in Scripture and communication of biblical truth than many of the men.
”…replaced these women with women who were in their twenties.” Wow. That is scary!! You’d expect this of the entertainment industry, not the church.
Every blessing to you. I’m sad for the hurt you have suffered. Wish I knew your first name – you are a person uniquely gifted and precious to the Lord, with a compassionate heart.