The Others: a context

canaanite-womanMatthew 15:21-28 21 Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” 24 He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” 28 Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

Between the 19th and 20th Sundays in Year A, Mt 15:1-21 are passed over. In order to provide a context let us briefly describe the events which leads us to Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman.

Jesus’ three acts of power in Mt 14 (feeding the 5,000; walking on water; and the healings at Gennesaret) are followed by a controversy with the Pharisees and scribes. The specific issue for debate is the disciples’ failure to observe the rules of ritual purity/cleanliness as exactly as the Pharisees did (v. 2). The Pharisees had received and built up a body of tradition designed to ensure the observance of the written Law. Their intentions were good: if one does not break the traditions then one will never break the commandment/Law and then God will never again punish the people by Exile. The people will remain a covenant people; at least so went the thinking. The Pharisees also saw the special Levitcal (priestly) rules as having value and helping obtain holiness and so they also wished to extend to all Israelites the rules that originally applied only to members of priestly families on the grounds that Israel is a priestly people. That is the background in Mt 15:2 where they expected Jesus and his followers to observe the rules of priestly purity spelled out in Lev 22:1–16.

The first part of Jesus’ response (vv. 3–9) attacks the Pharisees’ idea of tradition. Jesus argues that sometimes their tradition leads to breaking the clear commands of the law (vv. 3–6). The commandment about honoring one’s parents is stated in the law both positively (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16) and negatively (Exod 21:17). But the Pharisees’ tradition, according to Jesus, allows a person to place property under sacred vow as a means of preventing the parents from having access to it. Thus a pious fiction provides the excuse for disregarding and getting around a sacred obligation encouraged by the law. The words of Isa 29:13 are used to brand such behavior as hypocrisy. The tradition that claims to protect the law actually violates it.

The second part of Jesus’ response (vv. 10–20) concentrates on the specific issue of ritual purity. The statement in v.11 to the effect that there is only moral uncleanness is very radical, since large parts of the Old Testament law concern ritual uncleanness contracted by touching and by eating certain foods. Only a firm faith in Jesus as the authoritative interpreter of the law could allow Matthew and his community to accept such a revolutionary teaching.

To the basic statement in verse 11 are joined a very harsh judgment on the Pharisees (vv. 12–14) and an explanation for the disciples of Jesus (vv. 15–20). When informed about the Pharisees’ offense at his teaching, Jesus denies their spiritual roots (v. 13) and condemns them as blind guides leading others to destruction (v. 14). Peter’s request for an explanation of Jesus’ teaching in verse 15 assumes that “parable” means “mystery” or “riddle.” Jesus’ explanation in verses 17–20 merely expands and makes concrete the radical statement in verse 11. Moral purity alone is important, and the evil designs of the mind make a person morally impure and issue in the kinds of action forbidden by the Old Testament. The complaint raised against Jesus’ disciples in v. 2 has no validity, because the developed tradition of ritual impurity and purity has no validity.

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