How does one best care for marginalized people like the Canaanite women in Matthew 15; 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.