The Canaanite Woman

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

The story that we hear in the Gospel today is familiar. It appears in both the Gospel of St. Mark as well in the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is St. Matthew's version of the story that we hear today. St. Matthew changes the story in several ways.

He changes the ethnic background of the woman. While St. Mark calls her a Syro-Phoenician, St. Matthew tells us that she is a Canaanite. While both Syro-Phoenicians and Canaanites were Gentiles, the Canaanite label also makes the woman an enemy of the Israelites.

In St. Mark's Gospel, Jesus immediately responds to the woman. In St. Matthew's Gospel, Jesus chooses to ignore the woman until his disciples as him to intervene.

In St. Matthew's Gospel, the woman addresses Jesus as "Son of David." This is a Messianic title, and through it, the woman honors Jesus.

Finally, the dialogue in St. Matthew's Gospel is far longer than in St. Mark's. Jesus ends up by praising the woman's faith.

These subtle changes intensify the drama. However, they also shift the emphasis or focus of the story from Jesus to the woman. In St. Mark's version we are left to marvel at the power of Jesus who cures the demoniac daughter by his word. In St. Matthew's version we marvel at both the persistence as well as the faith of the woman.

It is important to remember that St. Mark was writing to a Gentile community, perhaps the community of Rome. St. Matthew, on the other hand was writing to the Jewish-Christian community of Jerusalem. The difference in audience is the reason for the changes. Jewish people believed that they would be saved by observance of the Law, by adhering strictly to the covenant of Sinai. However, throughout his Gospel, Matthew reminds us that we are saved by faith. Frequently, Jesus will say this explicitly. "Your faith has saved you." At the same time, Jewish people also believed that true faith could only be found within the ranks of the Chosen People. By explicitly recognizing the faith of the Canaanite (or Syro-Phoenician) woman, St. Matthew confronts this error head on. In this story, Jesus had ventured into foreign territory, the territory of Tyre and Sidon. Matthew calls upon the early Christian community to witness to the power of faith beyond the narrow boundaries of Israel.

Jesus frequently ventures beyond the comfort zones of Judaism and Israel. It is important that we remember that we too are called to venture outside of our own comfort zones as we continue the missionary efforts of the Church.

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