By Christian Bergmann
In his book, The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton discusses the religious psychology of the Canaanites inhabiting the regions of Tyre and Sidon, two of the most important cities of ancient Phoenicia. Owing in part to their tremendous commercial empire, theirs, Chesterton says, was an eminently practical religion, evidenced not least by the nature of their sacrifice to the god, Moloch. For them, the equation was simple. Sacrifice produced results. Most horrifyingly, the sacrifice associated with Moloch was the sacrifice of children by burning them alive. This was known, biblically, as part and parcel of the Canaanite religion, and for this reason the Israelites considered them to be the worst of the worst of the pagans. This was idolatry at its most repulsive. More to the point, in the Old Testament, Canaan was cursed by his father, Noah, saying, “lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:25). If we consider the conflicts of the Old Testament as resulting from sibling rivalry (which we should), then Canaan was considered by his brothers to be the lowest.
It is this region, Tyre and Sidon, that Jesus visits in today’s Gospel (Matthew 15:21-28), an account that also reveals Jesus at his most disturbing. In this passage, a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and asks him to exorcise her daughter of a demon. The reason why this account is disturbing is because of Jesus’ response to her. It is not the response we expect of Jesus. It is first of all silence. Then, Jesus tells her that he came only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v.24). When she presses him further for help, Jesus compares her to a dog: “it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (v.26). Only when the Canaanite woman has also compared herself to a dog does Jesus say, “O woman, great is your faith!” (v.28).
What is going on here? Commentators on this passage have always recognised in Jesus’ silence and initial response a preservation of the order of salvation: that is, in the words of Paul, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Jesus came, first and foremost, to fulfil the promises God made to Israel. Only then could the blessings promised to Abraham in the Old Testament, that in Abraham all the nations shall be blessed (Genesis 22:17-18), be spread to the entire world (now re-read the Great Commission).
This is something recognised by all the masters in the tradition: Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Augustine, and Saint Hilary of Poitiers. I wonder if there is something else going on here, however, that we can tap into.
Obviously, there is so much to say, but in light of Chesterton’s remarks on the religious psychology of the region, I wonder if we can read this as Jesus subverting a false notion of faith and inviting the Gentile form of religiosity into a more Jewish understanding of faith.
We are familiar with this perspective on faith. A prevalent view today, within certain quarters of Christianity (at least in my experience) has been precisely this “practical” religious faith Chesterton talks about, the kind of faith this Canaanite woman was no doubt familiar with as well. It amounts, in the end, to a kind of formula: we give this (in the case of Moloch, live children) and in return we get that (blessings of some description). This is not, I would argue, the kind of faith Jesus invites us into, nor is it the kind of faith on display in today’s Gospel. The kind of faith on display here, in the Canaanite woman, is more in tune with the heart of Israelite faith itself, as archetypically embodied by Israel himself, formerly known as Jacob.
In the book of Genesis, when Jacob was returning to see his brother Esau in order to return his stolen inheritance, Jacob wrestles with an angel – an angel that seems to represent God himself (Gen. 32:22-21). Jacob is a fierce contender. Even when the angel breaks Jacob’s hip, he refuses to let so and says, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (v.26). This, strangely enough, is the vision of faith embodied by Israel. Israel itself means “one who struggles with God”, which was why God changed his name. It is the furthest thing from formulaic, the furthest thing from “practical” religion. This kind of faith is an active wrestle with the living God, a wrestle God actually invites us to participate in.
In Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, we see Jesus’ ministry extended to the Gentiles – and to us, modern non-Jews. But, the Jews have order of priority in salvation, and the faith the Canaanite woman is entering into, and the faith that Jesus commends, is the faith of Israel: the wrestle, the dogged pursuit, the strength to say to the living God, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”