Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (17 August 2014)



  • Genesis 45:1-15 & Psalm 133 [or, Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 & Psalm 67]
  • Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
  • Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28


Gospel: Distant Girl Cured

The story of Jesus engaging with a Canaanite woman who was the mother of a sick daughter is known to us from Mark and Matthew. Interestingly, Luke has chosen not to use this story even though he must have been aware of it. It survives only in Mark and Matthew.

The basic stories are as follows:

(1) Mark 7:24-30
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

= Matt 15:21-23,25-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food 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, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.


Horizontal Line Synopsis

When placed in a horizontal parallel format, the close literary relationships between the original in Mark and the duplicate in Matthew are very clear:

Mark 7:24-30 || Matt 15:21-23,25-28


John P. Meier

Meier deals with this miracle in A Marginal Jew II,659-61. On this particular story he concludes:

Weighing all the pros and cons, it seems to me that the story of the Syrophoenician woman is so shot through with Christian missionary theology and concerns that creation by first-generation Christians is the more likely conclusion. (p. 660f)

After this negative conclusion (the equivalent of a Black vote in Jesus Seminar terms), Meier outlines his considered judgment on the seven exorcisms attributed to Jesus in the NT tradition:

If, however, one is pressed to judge whether some historical core lies behind the stories of exorcism in the the narrative sections of the Gospel, the following positions, are, in my view, the most likely: (1) The story of the possessed boy and the brief reference to Mary Magdalene’s exorcism probably go back to historical events in Jesus’ ministry. I tend to think the same is true of the story of the Gerasene demoniac, though in this case the arguments are less probative. (2) In its present form, the exorcism of the demoniac in the Capernaum synagogue may be a Christian creation, but it probably represents “the sort of thing” Jesus did during his ministry in Capernaum. (3) The brief story of the exorcism of a mute (and blind?) demoniac in the Q tradition (Matt 12:24 || Luke 11:14-15) is difficult to judge. It could go back to some historical incident, or it could be a literary creation used to introduce the Beelzebul controversy. (4) In contrast, it seems very likely that the story of the mute demoniac in Matt 9:32-33 is a redactional creation of Matthew to fill out his schema of three groups of three miracle stories in chaps. 8-9 of his Gospel. (5) The story of the Syrophoenician woman is probably a Christian creation to exemplify the missionary theology of the early church. (p. 661)

Jesus Seminar

In the opinion of the Seminar, there probably was a historical core to Mark’s story. (57% of Fellows voted Red or Pink).

A Greek woman regarded Jesus as an exorcist.
Jesus had a conversation with that woman .
Their conversation involved an exchange of witticisms in which the woman got the better of Jesus.

Jesus visited the region of Tyre in southern Lebanon.
Jesus viewed foreigners as “dogs.”
Jesus said: “It isn’t good to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus said: “Let the children be fed first.”
A demon left the girl because of her mother’s wit.
A demon left the girl because her mother trusted Jesus.


John Dominic Crossan

In Historical Jesus (1991:328), Crossan suggests that this story is the product of Christian imagination rather than Christian memory:

119 Distant Boy Cured [1/2] and 237 Distant Girl Cured [2/1] are the only two miracles that Jesus performed for Gentiles and performed at a distance. And, although this is not unique to those cases, they are performed for a child rather than the child’s parent. It is hard not to consider those twin miracles, requested by a father for his son and a mother for her daughter, as programmatic defenses of the later Gentile mission, as Jesus’ proleptic initiation of that process. It is quite likely, it seems to me, that those cases are not at all a movement from event to process but actually from process to event. Early Christian communities symbolically retrojected their own activities back into the life of Jesus.


Elaine Wainwright

In the opinions cited so far, we have observed the historical assessments made by (predominantly) male scholars. However, it will not be surprising to note that feminist scholars tend to focus on the characterization of the Canaanite woman, and to put the largely negative historical judgments to one side.

One such scholar is Elaine Wainwright. In her 2001 Ideas at the Powerhouse lecture, Elaine Wainwright connects the story of the woman she calls “Justa” with the story of an Australian Aboriginal woman, Nan:

Nan’s storied experience evokes a similar story for me in the Christian tradition enabling these stories to rub up against one another. It is the story of the Canaanite woman [named Justa in the later tradition] who seeks healing from Jesus for her daughter. As her story is told in the Matthean gospel, the Jesus of the story places a number of obstacles before her, finally citing the proverbial saying—its not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs [Matt 15:25] [words similar to those which Nan must have heard to have brought her to feel like a “beast of the field”]. As outsider to the resources the Matthean Jesus claimed only for Israel in this story, Justa, the Canaanite, appropriates to herself the status of ‘dog’ as Nan had appropriated the treatment from white Australia which had make her feel like a ‘beast’. As if shocked by Justa’s consequent appropriation, the Matthean Jesus sets aside the obstacles he has constructed and heals her daughter. While we hear Nan’s own voice through her granddaughter Sally, Justa’s voice is constructed by the Matthean storyteller who sets her story in the context of the ancient Canaanite/Israelite struggle. Jesus whose birth and life story generally placed him among the colonised of the Roman empire, preaching a message that was counter-Imperial, is placed in this story in the role of the coloniser. He stands with and for ancient Israel as this story evokes that of another conquest of land, namely ancient Israel’s violent appropriation of the land of the Canaanites on the grounds of its being promised as divine gift. This is a story which has been used to support many land grabs especially among Christians informed not only by the stories of ancient Israel but by a story such as the encounter between Jesus and Justa. And yes, it is not surprising to learn that it has been used in white European appropriation of indigenous Australian lands.
Attentiveness to present Australian experience and a telling of our stories has brought with it a critically attentive reading of a traditional religious story which has functioned in the past and still functions in the meaning-making process among many Australians. Just as our spirit and imagination is touched by Nan and her indigenous sisters and brothers, so too is it touched by Justa, the feisty Canaanite and all her Canaanite ancestors whose names we do not know. Both stories take our spirit beyond self-absorption to an awareness of, an encounter with the experience of the other as Clendinnen suggests, enabling us to allow space for the sacredness of the story of the other. And as these two stories intersect, the Jesus of this new story-telling, this shaping of a new spiritual imagination emerges not in doctrinal or dogmatic formulae but engaged in the process of recognizing his own complicity in colonialism even while steeped in a broader life vision of seeking to eradicate it. We are always unlearning and learning on this path toward transformation and stories which remind us of this aspect of the journeying can sustain our spirits along the way. Justa, the fiery Canaanite who is being re-membered in diverse contexts from Musa Dube’s native Botswana to our ideas fest here at the Powerhouse; Nan, the dying indigenous Australian grandmother; and Jesus, the first-century Jew who stands between coloniser and colonised accompany us through our re-membering, our re-telling of their stories.

In an earlier piece — originally written for Reading from This Place. 2: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation Internationally (Fortress, 1995) but later republished in Songlines 5(1996) — Elaine Wainwright creates a new narrative that imagines how the story of Justa may have functioned in the second- and third-generation Christian communities of Antioch. She sets the scene by inviting us to imagine a number of house churches scattered across the city, some with significant numbers of Aramaic-speaking Jewish disciples and others mostly Greek-speaking Gentiles. Leaders from these various house churches have met to assist in the gathering up of traditions that had particular significance among one or more of the groups. On this occasion they are re-membering the story of a woman who had asked Jesus to heal her daughter.

Miriam was the first to speak because this story was particularly significant in her house church. She told it as the story of Justa, the woman of Tyre whose granddaughter was now a member of their community. Justa had told and retold the story of her encounter with Jesus when he was in her region at a particular time when her young daughter had been ill for so long that many thought that she must have been demon possessed.
Justa was desperate and so she called out for help to this itinerant Jew who wandered into the area and who was being followed by such a close-knit group of women and men that he gave the appearance of being a holy one. How taken aback she was when she received this insulting rebuff: It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.
Justa’s need, however, was greater than any humiliation she could receive and so, led by some power even beyond her own consciousness, she quipped back: Ah. but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. She remembered her own fear at the realisation of what she had just said but also her experience of a new power which she had not known before, a power which would never again allow her to be put down in such a way.
She remembered also the look of astonishment, recognition and even shame that passed across the face of the Jewish holy man whom she later came to know as Jesus. He spontaneously held out his hand to her in welcome, drawing her up from her position of supplication, and he acclaimed her: Woman, great is your faith. Miriam acknowledged that their community had extended the saying of Jesus: Let it be done for you as you desire, so as to highlight Jesus’ recognition of what Justa had taught him; a recognition that linked her insight into wholeness with that of God whose way, whose dream, Jesus was to establish on earth.
At this point in Miriam’s storytelling, Johannan interrupted: You tell this story as if it were a story of Justa rather than Jesus. Our community is much more aware of the outrage that Jesus must have felt when confronted by this foreigner who was not only Syrophoenician — a veritable Canaanite according to our tradition — but also female. We have it on good authority from those who knew Jesus’ companions of that day, that Jesus at first ignored the woman. He was forever faithful to the traditions of his religion and he would not have spoken to such a woman in public. Indeed, his stance was even furthered by those companions who begged him to send her away.
Furthermore, in the story as we received it from our Hellenistic Jewish brothers and sisters in southern Syria, Jesus is reported as saying to the woman: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This is a very different picture of Jesus than that presented by Miriam. Jesus may eventually have given the woman what she wanted because she was crying after them as the disciples suggested, but the story still preserves the integrity of his mission to Israel rather than to the Gentiles, and our God-given gender distinctions.
It was now Justinian’s turn to intervene: Johannan, we have had this conversation many times before, I know, but Jesus’ own vision of his ministry was more universal than you say. This is one of our key stories which illustrates the movement within Jesus during his lifetime enabling him to see his mission as one including us.
This woman, whom we don’t name and I am happy to learn her name, this woman Justa, is indeed for us the foremother of the mission which includes us as Gentiles. Just as she won healing and wholeness for her daughter, so too she won it for us, her daughters and sons today. While she does not have a name in our story, she does, however, have a voice. She addresses Jesus as ‘Kyrios’ and as ‘Son of David’ and she cries out in the language of prayer and liturgy: ‘have mercy on me’ and ‘help me.’
Indeed, for us, her voice echoes the voice of the women of our community who participate in the liturgical life of the community and in our theological reflection. I hadn’t heard the conclusion to the story as Miriam has told it but I can tell you, Ruth and Matthias, it will be significant in our house community and we will add it to our telling of the story, so you would do well to include it also.


Alan Cadwallader

For a monograph length study of this passage, see Alan Cadwallader’s book, Beyond the Word of a Woman: Recovering the Bodies of the Syrophoenician Woman (ATF Press, 2008). The abstract reads as follows:

Ethology to the ancients was the study of character; to the moderns it is the study of human beings through the behavioural patterns of animals. These studies in fact have a common genealogy with classical writers convinced that the dimorphism of gender was naturally ordered with all its consequent inequalities in strength, virtue and above all in the location of reason. In the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician women in the Gospel of Mark this ethology dominates the story. Women are described as dogs. This highly original work utilises the common emphases of ancient and modern ethology to unlock new dimensions of the story. It demonstrates that in the Syrophoenician critique of Jesus, delivered by a woman and her daughter, exalted reason must yield its monopoly to the equally privileged life of the body. The author is a New Testament Biblical Scholar at Australian Cathollic Univeristy in Canberra, Australia. The book won the Lynlea Rodger Australasian Theological Book Prize in 2009 for the best Theological Book written in 2008/2009.

For an earlier work by Cadwallader in which his developing ideas about this passage are presented, see his 2005 essay “When a Woman is a Dog: Ancient and Modern Ethology meet the Syrophonecian Women” in The Bible and Critical Theory 1,4 (2005).

Cadwallader offers this summary of the impact of Matthew’s retelling of Mark’s story has had upon the subsequent reception and interpretation of the story, and identifies three new perspectives for approaching this story:

Up until relatively recently, Mark’s story has been overwhelmed by its dependent off-spring born(e) in a didactic, diasporan matrix (Mt 15:21–28). The faith of a humble, gentile woman has characterised the reading of both pericopes. Such a (mis-) reading of Mark has a remarkable tenacity—Gerd Lüdemann, for example, has claimed that, although the woman’s faith is not mentioned explicitly, ‘as a phenomenon it is present in the story’. The retrieval of the blatant affirmation of the word of a woman (Mk 7:29) has brought considerable reassessment of the significance of the story. This ‘word of a woman’ has become prized in a socio-political climate of the recovery of distinctive and critical women’s voices in contemporary church and society (especially in the West). However, even as this ‘word of a woman’ is still yielding a rich fecundity for the life of church and of those exploring other communal expressions of faith, I name three concerns (at least) for further reflection:
i) the problematisation of the accent upon word by the rehabilitation of corporeality as a positive, contributing presence.
ii) the significance of the application of animal epithets in an encounter involving a woman.
iii) the neglect of the daughter’s role in/for the story. (Beyond the Word of a Woman, xxxiv)


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