A story about Jesus that has troubled many people is his encounter with a Canaanite woman who was pleading with him to deliver her daughter from being oppressed by a demon. It is recorded in Matthew 15 and Mark 7. I’ll focus on Matthew’s account and refer to Mark’s on occasion.
Here’s the story from Matthew 15 (NRSV):
22 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.” 23 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.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
The way Jesus acts in this story can seem uncaring and out of character. His seeming reluctance to respond with mercy to the Canaanite woman is jarring. The Gospel accounts describe Jesus as one who readily showed mercy to those who were in need, regardless of their nationality or gender. Following this story in Mark 7, Jesus goes to the Decapolis (a Gentile region) and heals a deaf/mute by putting his fingers in the man’s ears and placing spit on his tongue! Both actions would have made Jesus unclean in the eyes of the Pharisees, yet Jesus, who often healed with a word, seems to go out of his way to heal this likely Gentile deaf/mute in a most intimate way; a way that would have repulsed many. He then feeds 4000 people in this Gentile territory. Additionally, the Parable of the Good Samaritan makes a non-Israelite the hero of the story. When Jesus began his ministry in Luke 4, he was nearly killed by his own people for pointing out how God sent Elijah to provide for a foreigner in a time of famine, and how Elisha healed a Syrian military commander when there were many lepers in Israel.
So what’s going on with Jesus and this Canaanite woman? He did ultimately heal her daughter, but why should he treat her in such an uncaring way? Some commentators propose that Jesus was testing her faith. Apparently rabbis often turned down requests from would-be students three times in order to test the resolve of those students. But Jesus seems to go beyond that here. He seems to flatly reject her because she is not a Jew, and then he essentially calls her a dog! I think there is a better way to understand what Jesus was doing.
I don’t think Jesus was testing the Canaanite woman’s faith. I think Jesus was testing his disciple’s faith.
I propose that Jesus was using satire here to point out to his disciples how they did not understand what he had been teaching them. Satire was in common use in the Greco/Roman world, with examples of it dating to several hundred years BC.
Satire can be defined as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices”. Role-playing is also used in satire. (i.e. The Colbert Report)
Follow me here. Just prior to this story (in both Mark and Matthew) some Pharisees and scribes question Jesus about his disciples not washing their hands before they eat. They weren’t concerned with hygiene, but ritual cleanliness or purity codes - identity markers that kept them separate from Gentiles. Things like what they ate, and how they dressed. Jesus then teaches his disciples about what makes a person unclean (defiled) and clean (undefiled). His point? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.
Jesus is trying to expand his disciples thinking about what is in their hearts, and that whatever is in their hearts will come out of their mouths – clean or unclean. This teaching is followed immediately by the encounter with the Canaanite woman.
22 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.” 23 But he did not answer her at all.
Jesus doesn’t answer the woman because he is waiting to see what will come out of his disciples' mouths. He’s testing his disciples to determine whether they understood what he had just been teaching them. And what comes out of their mouths?
“Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
Fail! The disciples reveal what is in their hearts. They still see Canaanites the way the Pharisees and scribes did - the way Moses did when he said to have no mercy on them. (Deuteronomy 7) They still see Gentiles as unclean and defiled because of what they eat, but Jesus had just taught them that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.
At this point Jesus could have directly corrected his disciples for misunderstanding what they had just been taught, but I propose that he took a different approach – that he began using satire and role-playing to make a more lasting impression. Imagine Jesus turning toward his disciples at this point, adopting their merciless attitude and saying in a snarky, condescending tone…
Yeah, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Seeming to agree with his disciples.)
The woman responds… “Lord, help me.”
Jesus, continuing in character whines…“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Echoing the way his disciples have revealed that they feel about her.)
The woman responds further, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
At this point, Jesus is astounded by what has just come out of the Canaanite woman’s mouth, revealing that what is in her heart is a humility and understanding far greater than even his own disciples. He stops role-playing and says…
“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Imagine the disciples' mouths dropping open as Jesus cleverly revealed their lack of faith and understanding. I expect this lesson stayed with them for a long time.*
Why do I think that Jesus was using satire and role-playing here?
Because when Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” we know that’s not true, because John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God sent Jesus to the entire world, so that everyone could know him.
And when Jesus says: “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” we know that’s not true because Jesus said in John 6, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Jesus is the bread of life for whoever believes in him. Jew or Gentile.
This story is a good one to dramatize with some friends. First, act out the text with the Jesus character facing the Canaanite woman and speaking as if he sincerely believes what he is saying, then do a second dramatization with Jesus role-playing the merciless attitude of his disciples. Even though the words are exactly the same, the difference in meaning couldn’t be more different.
We usually read the words of these Gospel stories without considering the way in which the words may have been actually expressed. This severely limits our range of interpretation, but even satire should be included in our interpretive toolbox.
* “Kenneth Bailey suggests that Jesus used this occasion to build on his manifesto at Nazareth, where he had cited the example of Elijah’s care for the widow of Zarephath. He aimed to teach his disciples a lesson about racial prejudice. They are mistaken if they think that Jesus will drive the woman away. Far from colluding with their prejudices, he takes time to expose their thoughts and to confound them by honouring the woman and healing her daughter.” Basil Scott in ‘God Has No Favourites: The New Testament on First Century Religions’.