Last revised: September 3, 2017
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PROPER 15 (August 14-20) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 20
RCL: Gen. 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28
RoCa: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Matthew’s Gospel story of the Canaanite woman has become one of the most important biblical stories to me, one that I raise often when seeking an example of how Jesus reinterprets his own Jewish faith. As I describe below, I first came upon this reading in Brian McLaren‘s Everything Must Change, who in turn cites an online essay by Grant LeMarquand (of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry), “The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus.” McLaren recaps this reading in Chapter 11, “From Ugliness, a Beauty Emerges,” of his more recent book We Make the Road By Walking (see more below under the Gospel). I hope that you find this reading to be groundbreaking, as well.
1. René Girard, Things Hidden, “Joseph,” pp. 149-154.
2. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 106-112; Girard compares the Joseph saga to the Oedipus myth as a central illustration of the Bible’s uniqueness in demythologizing the mythological viewpoint.
3. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, & the Sacred, “Joseph and His Brothers: The Triumph of the Innocent Victim,” pp. 54-60.
4. Sandor Goodhart, “‘I am Joseph’: René Girard and the Prophetic Law,” in Violence and Truth, ed. by Paul Dumouchel, pp. 53-74.
5. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay; the opening image of his introduction, pp. ix-x, is as follows:
“How” Joseph must have thought, as he donned his Egyptian Vizier’s robe, “am I going to enable my brothers to share all this abundance which has been given me? They think I’m probably dead, and effectively that’s what they wanted. They are a long way away, and even if, by the sort of miracle usually confined to Bible stories, they were to wend their weary way across the desert from Canaan to Egypt, they are probably still just as jealous and fratricidal as ever they were, and thus would be frightened of me. They would think me likely to be plotting revenge and so wouldn’t open up enough to be able to receive all the things I want to give them. To tell them that we were wrong is to play tit-for-tat. Not to tell them anything is to treat them as incorrigible and deprive them of the joyous breaking of heart which will enable us to become real brothers. What on earth am I to say?”I am not sure that any lesser starting point is worthy of gay people who are becoming able to speak the gift of faith. The position of the effectively dead man who, after losing any belonging, after struggling through an unsatisfactory apprenticeship and a prison sentence in a realm he did not know, without any support from his own, has found himself given a position of such favor and abundance that his task is to imagine generosity for others. This is what I mean by calling this book “Faith Beyond Resentment.” Joseph exercised Pharaoh’s generosity as though he had never undergone any of the experiences which led him to his position. He was so entirely free of any sort of resentment that he was able to imagine an entirely generous and sustained program for the reconciliation of his brothers, and act it out in such a way that they were eventually able to get the point, overcome their fratricide and be reconciled.
In the pages that follow, it is to just such a making available of abundance from a complete lack of resentment that I aspire. And yet the reality falls far short of the aspiration. I don’t suppose that Joseph was free from resentment as he was sold into slavery by his brothers. He had time for meditation as he was dragged off to Egypt, meditation which could easily have turned into bitterness, resentment and despair. He had cause for more of the same when his seemingly safe job got turned into a trap by the wife of his master Potiphar. And in whose entrails would the worm not have turned during a long and undeserved jail-sentence? Yet it was in the midst of these experiences that Joseph developed an awareness of being loved such that he recognized that none of the people against whom he might justly feel resentment were really worthy of his dedicating to them that weight of emotional involvement. And he moved beyond even that, to a position of such freedom that he began to be able to plot not vengeance, but sustained forgiveness as the gift of humanizing others.
The reason I have called these pages “fragments” is that they inhabit the process of losing resentment. The freedom from resentment which I have described is aspirational, but the process of losing it is real. The chapters upon which you are embarking mark my failure to write the book which I once planned, a symphonically elegant treatise on the unbinding of the gay conscience. I have instead been given to dwell within the process of the unbinding of that conscience. Each chapter is perhaps a pit stop on the camel route to Egypt, a few hours stolen from my duties in Potiphar’s mansion, an idling away of time in prison.
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
1. See the resources and reflections from Proper 13A regarding Romans 9-11 as a whole.
2. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 143-157. McLaren (whose next book will have a significant Girardian component) suggests a theme for making a unified reading of Romans that I think works well — namely, Jews and Gentiles being able to live together in Christ, who is “the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8:29). See the citation on this book in Proper 4A for a more complete description of the theme and McLaren’s Seven Move outline for Romans. This passage comes within his Fifth Move: Address Jewish and gentile problems, showing God as God of all (Rom. 9:1-11:36), of which he writes:
So he comes to the possible conclusion that God is responsible. God has hardened their hearts to achieve some greater good. Paul is finally comfortable with this conclusion, right? No, not completely!
Something fascinating happens at this point. Paul realizes that just as the Jews may have been proud because they had the Law, the Gentiles might become proud now because they are coming to faith in Christ in greater numbers than his fellow Jews. Paul still cant conclusively explain the problem of widespread (though not universal) Jewish coolness toward the gospel of the kingdom of God. But even though he cant explain it, he now decides to use it to warn the Gentiles that if the Jews could wander from the path, so can they, so they shouldnt be proud; rather, they should be humble and careful stand in awe, he says (11:20). Paul introduces a new term into his discourse at this point: mystery. Does it suggest some new insight, some new secret to disclose, that might lead to a breakthrough in understanding?
Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (11:30-32) (pp. 153)
3. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Nothing will ever be quite same in Pauline scholarship for those who take seriously Campbell’s dismantling of justification, and his arguing that Paul’s language of justification was a secondary way of speaking for Paul when in debate with a version of Christianity that is conditional in its grace. And because we misread Romans 1-4, according to Campbell, Protestantism has often lapsed into the conditional grace that Paul is trying to undo. Paul’s primary language of unconditional grace is a language of deliverance elaborated in Romans 5-8. This is now the definitive book, in my opinion, that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. See my “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com page. The most controversial thesis involves his contention that Paul used the Roman rhetorical convention of Diatribe, meaning that it contains Paul voicing his opponent’s views within the text of Romans which we thus need to sort from Paul’s own views. In short, for twenty centuries after Paul delivered this letter to the Roman church, training the carrier to read it properly in two voices, subsequent generations have read two opposing views in the text all as Paul’s view only. I find this thesis compelling and vitally important; here is my own explanation and plotting of the opposing views in a translation of Romans 1:1-4:3.
4. N. T. Wright is another important resource to consult for Romans. See, first of all, his commentaries: The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10; and his Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Romans 1-8) and Part 2 (Romans 9-16). See also The Resurrection of the Son of God, ch. 5, Resurrection in Paul (Outside the Corinthian Correspondence),” sec. 7 on Romans; and Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. His ‘big book’ on Paul in his Fortress Press series “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” was published in 2013, Paul and the Faithfulness of God; the most sustained section on Romans 5-8 are pages 1007-1026. Wright’s more recent book on theology of the cross, The Day the Revolution Began, devotes more space to Romans than any other book of the New Testament, chapters 12-13; see also my review of this book, “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.”
5. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #5.
1. For the many centuries of Christendom, Christians became the ones disobedient to the God of mercy. Are we now in the place of the First Century Jews that our disobedience can become the occasion for God showing forth a new outpouring of mercy?
1. David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels, “The Pharisees and the Canaanite Woman,” pp. 14-22. The RCL gives the option of including the story of the Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees before his encounter with the Canaanite. You might consider taking that option. McCracken’s look at reading these two encounters in tandem is one of the most helpful passages in his excellent book, and the most helpful reading I’ve seen on the difficult, skandalous story of Jesus’ dialogue with Canaanite woman. Jesus says offensive things to the Pharisees, too, but we don’t generally blink an eye at that anymore. For Jesus’ original audience it would have been the other way around: they would have been very uncomfortable with the offensive things Jesus said to the Pharisees (a discomfort which the disciples actually voice in Matthew’s telling), and they wouldn’t have blinked an eye at what he said to the Canaanite woman. When you read these two stories together you find quite a contrast:
The Pharisees are offended; the Canaanite woman is not offended. The stark contrast is revelatory, for the opposite of offense is faith, but the only way to faith is through the possibility of offense…. The central issue is offense versus faith. And it is posed in a highly offensive way: pious and law-abiding Pharisees lack faith, and a Gentile dog has great faith. What Jesus said to John the Baptist’s disciples in Matthew 11:6 broods over this narrative as a kind of suspended challenge to the characters in the text and to readers of the text: ‘Blessed is anyone who takes no offense [skandalon] at me.’ (p. 19)
2. See the webpage “Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon,” which includes a page cataloguing those uses (note the wide variation of translation into English). The Gospel of Matthew accounts for 19 out of 34 occurrences of the noun and verb, with the heaviest concentration in this middle section, Matthew 13-18; link to a page cataloguing just Matthew’s uses of skandalon and skandalizo.
3. Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, pp. 155-158. At a crucial place in his argument — in a section titled “A Radical Reassessment of Jesus” and a chapter called “Joining the Peace Insurgency” — McLaren brings in this troubling story of Jesus and the “Canaanite” woman, using a reading he borrows from Grant LeMarquand (of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry) in an online essay “The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus.” First, read LeMarquand’s fine essay. But McLaren’s use of it is also right-on-target in a context of seeking to undertake the postmodern task of recovering the anti-imperialist readings of the Bible. He begins this section on “A Radical Reassessment of Jesus” with an eloquent statement of the task:
But as this book demonstrates, we are in the early stages of a radical reassessment of Jesus. More and more of us realize how religious communities can be complicit with imperial narratives and edit their version of Jesus to fit their narrative. More and more of us understand Jesus life and message as being centered on the articulation and demonstration of a radically different framing story — one that critiques and exposes the imperial narrative as dangerous to itself and others. More and more of us are discovering a fresh vision of a Jesus who seems less moody, irrational, and bipolar, and more consistent, focused, courageous, subversive, and brilliant.Obviously, in this emerging reading phrases like turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), love your enemies (Matthew 5:44), and all who draw the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52) are deeply significant. But in this alternative reading, many other stories of Jesus take on a powerful new luminosity as well, charged with mystery and wonder and dynamism in stark contrast to imperial narratives and counternarratives.
A prime example would be Matthews story of the Canaanite woman (15:21-28), which has been read provocatively by Grant LeMarquand. (pp. 154-55)
The key to seeing that Matthew might be doing something different here is that he changes Mark’s “Syro-Phoenician” woman to a “Canaanite” woman, which is an anachronistic term in the first century, like calling a modern Norwegian person a Viking. But “Canaanite” fits well to the time of Joshua and his conquest of the Promised Land. Is Matthew’s Jesus reconstituting that conquest? McLaren has an engaging reading of 15:21-28 itself, but the overall clue as to reconstituting conquest appears through what comes next in Matthew’s story of Jesus: healing of Gentile crowds (Matthew tells us they are Gentiles by remarking that “they praised the God of Israel”; Matt. 15:31) and then a repeat of the miraculous feeding. In the first feeding with Jews (14:13-21), there is a hint of reconstitution by the gathering of twelve baskets leftover, for the twelve tribes of Israel. In the second feeding with Gentiles (15:32-38), there are seven baskets leftover. If we look for a similar symbolism of reconstitution, we might look to the time of the “Canaanites.” As the people of Israel stand poised for conquest of that land, Moses says to them:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you — and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5)
In the first encounter with the seven nations of “Canaanites,” they are to show no mercy. But Matthew’s Jesus has come to teach them something different, to learn what this means, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (with Matthew’s Jesus twice quoting Hosea 6:6 in Matt. 9:13 and 12:7). McLaren concludes:
If Jesus first feeding miracle and its twelve-basket surplus suggest a reconstitution of the twelve tribes being led through the wilderness with a new kind of manna, then this second feeding miracle suggests a new kind of conquest — not with swords and spears, but with bread and fish; not to destroy, but to serve and heal. Jesus seizes the old narrative, shakes it, turns it inside out, and offers a new story that reframes a future radically different from the past. (p. 158)
This reconstituting relationships with Gentiles begins with the encounter with the “Canaanite” woman, who seems to remind Jesus of what the promise to Abraham and Sarah is really all about. She doesn’t begrudge Jesus the fact of his mission with his own people who have lost their way (Jesus himself calling them “lost sheep”). But she knows that if he is successful with his own people in helping them to find their way again, that she will at least recieve scraps from their table. For the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and Sarah is not for Jews to be blessed for their own sake but that they might become a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3).
(btw, I highly recommend McLaren’s book as a superb guide to the postmodern task of moving beyond believing the faith as a way to the afterlife to practicing the faith in ways that make a difference in the here and now.)
4. Grant LeMarquand in an online essay “The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus.” I first came across this essay through McLaren‘s book above, but there are important insights to be found by going directly to the essay (and not simply through McLaren). Most important to me is what I take as a clever and subtle double meaning in the title of the essay itself. In McLaren’s use of this essay the one meaning is clear: in Matthew 15 Jesus is reconstituting Joshua’s conquest of Canaan with healing and food for the hungry instead of militaristic genocide. (btw, we might notice that Jesus and Joshua are the same name, the latter translated into English directly from the original Hebrew and the former filtered through the Greek translation. In short, Matthew 15 is a contrast between the conquering styles of these two Joshua’s.) Grammatically, we may see this reading as the subjective reading of the genitive where Jesus is the conqueror.
But there is also the objective reading where Jesus is the conquered. Sure enough, LeMarquand also gives us this second reading:
In fact, it may be that it is not just the woman who is converted, as Jackson suggests, but Jesus himself. In the midst of his testing of this woman, Jesus attitude appears to shift. She is at first a non-entity; she is ignored. Next she is addressed, but Jesus words to her are simply an explanation of her exclusion (I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, 15:24). Finally, Jesus hears the faith behind her plea, grants her request, and heals her daughter (15:28). It appears that Jesus has been turned; he has been confronted with and has learned the meaning of his own teaching concerning mercy (see, for example, Mt 5:7, 9:13; 12:7; 23:23). The story of the Canaanite woman is a story of Jesus own conversion. In this narrative the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite.
Is this an either/or? Do we have to choose between a Jesus who knowingly goes into Gentile land as a different kind of conqueror than the Joshua of roughly fourteen centuries earlier, thus playing games with Canaanite woman whom he foreknows to have faith? Or a Jesus who is taught a lesson by this Canaanite woman and then puts it to use right away in Gentile territory?
Or is there a third choice indicated once again by our reading of Matthew 11:12 (see Advent 3A). The middle voice of biazetai is not simply a choice between reading it as either active or passive, as inflicting violence or suffering violence, respectively. No, the true middle, as a distinct third choice, is to actively choose to suffer violence rather than inflict (as in ‘turning the other cheek’). Similarly, the choice that LeMarquand’s genitive title “The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus” isn’t simply between Jesus as either the conqueror or the conquered. The distinctive third option would be both: Jesus is first and foremost a conquerer by purposefully letting himself be ‘conquered’. So, yes, Jesus does enter into the conversation foreknowing that this woman’s faith is up to the test. But instead of flaunting this foreknowledge, or intuition, he lets himself look like an abuser. He lets the tables be turned so that, in an act of faith (not violence), “the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite,” as LeMarquand puts it. The ultimate turning of the tables — a “subversion from within,” to use James Alison‘s turn of phrase often used in these pages — is to subvert the entire process of conquering by letting oneself be conquered. And, as with the cross and resurrection, this conquering immediately shows itself as the power to heal and nourish in the subsequent episodes of Matthew 15 — namely, the power of God’s merciful love.
Thus, what is finally reconstituted is our experience of God. Instead of a god who shows no mercy through the first Joshua, we meet a God of mercy through a new Joshua, who shows forth that mercy, first of all, through the willingness to suffer violence rather than inflict it, and then, second of all, as the true power of life itself, rather than of death — namely, through the power to heal the sick and nourish a crowd.
5. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, Chapter 11, “From Ugliness, a Beauty Emerges.” This chapter begins with the violence of the Bible in passages such as Deut. 7:1-2, where God commands genocide. What are our options? McLaren writes,
Many religious scholars have assumed that because the Bible makes these claims, we must defend them as true and good. That approach, however, is morally unacceptable for growing numbers of us, and fortunately, we have another option.
We can acknowledge that in the minds of the originators of these stories, God as they understood God did indeed command these things. We can acknowledge that in their way of thinking, divine involvement in war was to be expected. We can allow that they were telling the truth as they best understood it when they found comfort and reassurance in a vision of a God who would harm or kill them to defend, help, or avenge us. We can try to empathize, remembering that when human beings suffer indignity, injustice, dehumanization, and violence, they naturally pray for revenge and dream of retribution against those who harm them. Without condoning, we can at least understand why they saw God as they did, knowing that if we had walked in their sandals, we would have been no different.
But we don’t need to stop there. We can then turn to other voices in the biblical library who, in different circumstances, told competing stories to give a different and we would say better vision of God. (pp. 47-48)
Which then brings him to the reading of Matthew 15 that we have outlined here. And so he concludes:
Matthew’s version of this story makes a confession: Our ancestors, led by Moses and Joshua, believed God sent them into the world in conquest, to show no mercy to their enemies, to defeat and kill them. But now, following Christ, we hear God giving us a higher mission. Now we believe God sends us into the world in compassion, to show mercy, to heal, to feed to nurture and protect life rather than take it.
We begin with prebiblical visions of many warring gods who are all violent and capricious. In much of the Bible, we advance to a vision of a single God who uses violence against them in the service of justice for us. Eventually, through the biblical library, we find a beautiful new vision of God being revealed. God desires justice for all, not just for us. God is leading both us and them out of injustice and violence into a new way of reconciliation and peace. God loves everyone, everywhere, no exceptions.
Violence, like slavery and racism, was normative in our past, and it is still all too common in the present. How will we tell the stories of our past in ways that make our future less violent? We must not defend those stories or give them the final word. Nor can we cover them up, hiding them like a loaded gun in a drawer that can be found and used to harm. Instead, we must expose these violent stories to the light of day. And then we must tell new stories beside them, stories so beautiful and good that they will turn us toward a better vision of kindness, reconciliation, and peace for our future and for our children’s future. (p. 49)
7. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 105-6. In a section on “Acts of Healing,” Marr makes substantial comments on this text:
So far, I have demonstrated how Jesus shows his deep understanding of mimetic rivalry and communal scapegoating. The enigmatic story of the Canaanite woman, (Mt. 15:21-28) however, shows Jesus inside the social matrix, needing to find his way out of it. Two things about the story are perplexing: 1) Jesus’ harsh words to a person in need, and 2) Jesus losing a verbal exchange with another and apparently changing his point of view because of that exchange. We are troubled by these points because we usually assume that the divinity of Jesus requires that he was sinless and omniscient. I would argue that being fully human means that Jesus was not omniscient but had to learn life skills and develop his understanding of life just like any other human. The ludicrousness of the notion that Jesus knew everything about carpentry while an infant should convince us of that. Since sin is not essential to human nature, being sinless would not have compromised his full humanity. However, being fully human would mean that he was born participating in the mimetic matrix of his culture with both its salutary elements and its unsalutary ones. This story helps us explore how Jesus came to terms with a problematic aspect of his cultural inheritance.
Matthew’s calling the woman a Canaanite was an anachronism that recalled Israel’s historical relationship with this people, in much the same way that calling a contemporary Danish woman a Viking would invoke ten centuries of history for us. Jesus would have grown up absorbing his people’s tradition that the Canaanites were the worst of enemies, enemies to be exterminated by the likes of Joshua, enemies who were periodic oppressors of Israel in the period of the Judges. Worst of all, Canaanites were dangerous because they tempted the Israelites to forsake their God in favor of their idols and sacrificial practices. Mark gave the woman the more up-to-date designation of a Syrophoenician. This meant she was a member of the oppressing class of the Roman Empire, which made victims of the Jews. Starting from early childhood, Jesus would have taken in this adversarial relationship before he knew what had possessed him. With this cultural inheritance, it is understandable, if not commendable, that Jesus would speak harshly to a Canaanite (Syrophoenician) woman who came to him for help. Many commentators try to get out of this difficulty by suggesting that Jesus was just testing the woman. That is possible but I would like to follow up the ramifications of accepting the plain sense of this story.
The Canaanite woman’s retort is justly famous for its cleverness and humility, qualities that make her words subversive. Jesus seems as amazed by her faith as he is by the faith of the centurion who asked him to heal his servant. (Mt. 8:10) That the woman asked for the deliverance of a daughter possessed by a demon may have aroused Jesus’ sympathy. The Gerasene Demoniac had shown Jesus how a dysfunctional culture can possess a person and need to be exorcized. That this woman wanted her daughter delivered of the demon possessing her own culture would alert Jesus of the need to eject the demon of hatred of the Canaanites that had possessed his own culture. This understanding of the story has Jesus modeling the ability and willingness to overcome an ancestral enmity by listening deeply to the reality of a person in need so that she ceases to be an enemy. We desperately need to learn to follow this kind of example offered by Jesus today.
8. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from August 18, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
9. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a brief essay on this passage in 2014, “An Enemy Woman as Teacher.”
1. In 2002 the Proper 14A gospel text about Jesus walking on the water sparked for me a series of sermons on faith, beginning with “Faith Is Rising above the Stormy Seas of Violence.” It continued with this gospel, with “Faith Is Not Being Scandalized,” when talking about Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman and the Joseph saga. The plan was to continue this series as we continue to encounter Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ use of the skandal– words.
2. Matthew 15:18-19: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” If we take the heart as being the seat for human desiring, then does Girard’s analysis of the Decalogue (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, ch. 1) fit here? The Tenth Commandment involves the scandalizing fall into the rivalries of mimetic desire, covetousness, and what issues forth from there is captured in the previous four commandments: murder, adultery and fornication, theft, false witness and slander — Jesus’ exact list!