Historical Cultural Context
Honor and Shame
Several aspects of Mediterranean culture place this reading in a fresh perspective.
Honor and Shame
When he sent the Twelve on mission, Jesus directed them to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and urged them to steer clear of the Gentiles and Samaritans (Mt 10:5-6). Now Jesus himself heads in pagan direction, toward Tyre and Sidon, and is met by a pagan (Canaanite) woman from that region (Mt 10:21).
Will he contradict himself? This would be a shameful reversal of his earlier honorable charge to the Twelve.
Challenge and Riposte
Always keep in mind the very public dimension of life in the Middle East. There is always a crowd at hand to watch, judge, and decide whether to grant honor or impute shame.
The Canaanite woman uses the crowd to her advantage and hurls a challenge at Jesus.
Like others in the Gospel, she cleverly addresses Jesus with an honorific title: “Lord, Son of David” and uses this title as a basis for her request: “have mercy on me.”
In the Middle Eastern world, mercy is a sensitivity to and sense of responsibility for one’s debts to God and other human beings. People who ask for mercy feel they are owed something; people who show mercy acknowledge and pay what they owe.
The woman’s plea is based on recognizing Jesus’ Davidic ancestry and hoping he will act in accord with the reputation of the great King David. He will offer a remedy, perhaps a cure, for her demon-tormented daughter.
Jesus is not obliged to answer the challenge. The woman is a pagan, he is an Israelite. They are not equals, and the honor game can only be played by equals. Following the honor code of his culture, Jesus ignores her.
The woman is not put off. She continues to follow the crowd and shriek after Jesus and his disciples (Mt 15:23). Her behavior undoubtedly attracts an even larger crowd. The disciples urge Jesus to send her away. Their suggestion is unclear: send the woman away by healing her daughter or without doing so?
Jesus’ answer seems to imply that the disciples meant the former. He continues to refuse by citing his commitment “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman is not to be denied. She comes forward, kneels respectfully to honor Jesus, and again uses the honorific title, “Lord.” This time her plea is simple and moving: “Help me.”
Jesus responds harshly and argues against throwing the children’s food to dogs. This is an enormous insult to the woman. Gentiles were commonly referred to as dogs. Jesus apparently repeats his culture’s stereotype. Calling a woman a dog is offensive in every language. Jesus has no qualms.
To everyone’s amazement, including Jesus, the woman retorts with cleverness: “Lord [note the honorific title], even dogs eat crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Mt 15:27).
The woman proves she can give as good as she gets. She is equal to the game of challenge and riposte. She is the only person in the Gospels who proves to be a good match for Jesus’ wit.
The fact is not lost on Jesus. He responds with the equivalent of “touché!” and grants her request. The daughter is healed instantly.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University