What’s The Story – Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

OK. So, I know that recently I made the bold statement that I often find the sayings and teachings of Jesus in the Bible easier to believe than the miracles or stories. How did I phrase it? “More often find myself saying ‘did he really do that?’ than, ‘did he really say that?’.”
The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman may be the exception that proves that rule.
Though I have read, marked and learned this passage over and over again throughout the years, I still find myself somewhat incredulous each time I get to the part where Jesus talks about “tak[ing ]the children’s bread and throw[ing] it to the dogs.” Did he really just say that? It seems wrong on so many levels.
So let’s unpack things, shall we?
The cultural and religious distaste of ancient Israelites for gentiles (that is, literally, ‘everyone else’) is notorious. To the extent that the religious identity of Jews in the 2nd Temple period was completely tied up in being God’s chosen people living in the midst of invading cultures, one can see, if not completely understand, their thinking that everyone else as somewhat ‘less.’ Perhaps referring to this woman, her daughter, and and all people of non-Jewish ancestry as ‘dogs’, was common-place among the average Jews of Jesus’ time.
But Jesus is not average. And, moreover, my 21st century American middle-class mores dictate that no matter how he would have normally talked about her, saying it to her face as she kneels before him pleading for intercession was just a little bit rude. Thus the “plain reading” of this text can be right, can it?
But the woman is clever. Or at least that’s how much contemporary interpretation of this story has suggested. She takes Jesus’ slur and turns it using it as a ‘teachable moment’ to nuance Jesus’ own sense of mission. “But even the dogs get the crumbs,” she says and even the crumbs would be enough. ¬†What a powerful statement of faith from one so recently offended? This woman, this gentile, this ‘dog’ has somehow mastered the messiah’s true purpose: universal scope, mustard seed and all. She’s even become an agent of God himself, a messenger sent with a course-correction for the Son. Unbelieveable! Perhaps this is a miracle story after all.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure what I believe about this text. Part of me wants to believe that Jesus is above being taught by this, or any other person. But if that is the case, then I need to face the fact that Jesus may have said something very rude and, utterly un-Jesus-like. Part of me wants the mis-understanding to be mine; a lack of knowledge or study or insight into the deeper context and meaning of the passage.
What this story ultimately holds for me, then, is tension. And perhaps that tension is enough. Tension is at the heart of the whole Gospel as God does in Jesus many unthinkable things: deigning to be be born in human form, live a life of suffering and pain and, even die; all thoroughly un-God-like things. Thus, the very point may be for us to be OK with doing some very un-Us-like things: giving up our need to understand everything clearly and the first time, being OK with tension and uncertainty in the midst of faith, even letting go of some basic preconceptions about Jesus himself.
Perhaps there is an answer for this text waiting for me someday – but, alas, that is a topic for another post – but for now, I will try to wait patiently in the tension of the story.

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