The encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman has sparked a flurry of interpretations. Jesus does not seem to be at his compassionate best, as he ignores her entreaty for her daughter’s well being. Not only do the disciples encourage him to send her away, “for she keeps shouting at us,” but he stated his own reasons for his refusal to answer her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).
She persisted by coming to kneel in front of him to state her case. And a most amazing repartee ensues. To her plea “Lord help me,” he responds: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26). Jews often referred to Gentiles as dogs, so apparently Jesus descends to a common slur. Did she slink away at this dismissive remark? Not at all!
She counters, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Impressed with her persuasive argument, Jesus answers: “Woman, great is your faith! Let if be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
That this exchange, which does not portray Jesus in the most flattering light, even made it into this Gospel is remarkable. A woman speaks directly to him and, seemingly, wins the debate. This narrative reflects a larger vision of inclusion in Matthew’s community—both of women and Gentiles—than we often surmise.
Further, it suggests that as Jesus faces new demands, he must improvise to be faithful to his calling. Matthew’s Gospel portrays Jesus as a “new Moses,” offering a Sermon on the Mount reminiscent of Moses bringing God’s instruction down from Mount Sinai. Like Moses, Jesus confronts unexpected challenges that call for extemporaneous solution, which serves to expand the mission of God. Moses’ willingness to send spies into Canaan before attempting to enter the land is the prelude to the story of Rahab, another Canaanite women who figures in God’s mission of redemption.
This week I am meeting with the Ministers Council of the ABC. Graciously, the leadership of this important professional advocacy group for ABC clergy has invited me to tell “the Central story.” They are interested in how an organization or institution can make the kind of changes that move it from surviving to thriving. To no ones surprise, I will speak about expanding the mission.
Over the past several years, Central has been willing to experiment, improvise, and listen to new challenges from churches. One of the most important aspects of our renewal has been our capacity to include those who speak other languages, those without educational privilege, those who want a more entrepreneurial preparation for ministry, and those who need flexibility in educational delivery.
Seeing from another’s perspective led Jesus to offer his healing grace to an outsider. I trust Central will also listen attentively to what is being asked of the seminary in a time of rapid change.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.