The Bible’s Supporting Players: The Canaanite Woman

The Bible with flowers

This New Testament mother could be the patron saint for Women Who Speak Up. Those once taught that the cardinal virtue was don’t-rock-the-boat admire her and her tribe. She is feisty. And, though the Gospel doesn’t record this detail, she probably wore a flashy red hat.

We don’t know what prompted her, any more than we fully understand what made Rosa Parks keep her seat on the bus. Maybe the Canaanite woman was tired of being dismissed due to ethnicity and gender, or spending sleepless nights with a sick child. Maybe her daughter had had a seizure that morning, some hideous progression of her illness that compelled Mom to say, “Enough! I’ve had it!”

Nor do we know exactly what drew her to Jesus: his other healings? his compassion? If she expected kindness, she must have been disappointed by his rebuff. “But he did not answer her at all” (Matthew 15:23, NRSV) is one of the Gospel’s most chilling sentences.

Refusing to Give Up

This woman’s refusal to give up is remarkable. Many of us would slink away like wimps; she stands fast. When the rudeness of the disciples is added to Jesus’ silence, it must feel like a brick wall toppling onto her head. But driven by love, she persists.

To be fair to Jesus and his disciples, Mark’s comment sounds as if Jesus needs introvert time: “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there” (7:24). People who crave solitude know what an intrusion the Canaanite woman presents. She demonstrates the boldness of those who have nothing to lose.

If Jesus denies her, it probably represents one more in a long line of refusals. Yet how could she trudge back home to her desperately ill daughter without trying?Perhaps the high stakes are what make her conversation with Jesus so direct and earthy. Indeed, she is one of the few in Scripture who exchange clever banter with him.

When he slips into the metaphor of not throwing the children’s food to the dogs, she keeps up. Robust and vital, she can play the same game: “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27, NRSV).

His capitulation is marvelous to behold. Jesus can admit he’s wrong; he had drawn the borders around his kingdom too tightly. We can imagine him grinning and slapping his forehead as he says, “Woman, great is your faith!”

Contemporary Whistleblowers

The Canaanite woman lives on in contemporary whistle-blowers:

  • Erin Brockovich, who traced the illnesses of California residents to leakage of toxic chromium 6 into the ground- water from the Pacific Gas and Electric Company and won the largest injury settlement in U.S. history: $333 million for the sick people.
  • Sherron Watkins, who alerted the public to the dirty dealings of Enron.
  • Barbara Blaine, who, with other survivors of pedophilia, opened the curtain of secrecy shrouding priests’ sexual abuse of children. Countless anonymous women of courage fight for children’s rights to education and medical care, attack the corporations that pollute air and water, question whether war resolves conflicts.

These women hand on the “outspoken” gene as if in a grand matrilineage. Seeing evil or oppression, they speak, regardless of what it costs them. They are not intimidated by gatekeepers like the disciples, the stall tactics of attorneys or those wanting to preserve a corporation’s reputation. They run the risk of looking foolish; they easily admit they don’t have “complete scientific data.”

And all of us are better because of them. Without the Canaanite woman, we might never have glimpsed the petulant or playful sides of Jesus. Without later whistleblowers, the powerful would stay arrogantly entrenched and the voiceless would sink lower on the human heap.

We can’t help wondering if the Canaanite woman’s daughter followed in her footsteps. Was she forever deeply grateful to Jesus for her cure? Did she call attention to injustice when she saw it? Was she as fearless as her mom when her turn came to speak up? Did she excel at witty verbal sparring, too?

In one sense, it’s speculation. But in another, we are all daughters of the Canaanite woman, called to follow her model. When opportunities arise, let’s exercise those vocal cords. Let’s dust off the red hats.

Next Month: Jeroboam

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