The Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28)
There were a few occasions where Jesus healed Gentiles (non-Jews), but usually they occurred when He was approached by Gentiles in Jewish territory. In the story of the Canaanite woman (sometimes called the Syro-Phoenecian woman) Jesus seems to have deliberately travelled into the predominantly non-Jewish region of Tyre and Sidon for a purpose, returning to the Sea of Galilee directly afterward (Matt. 15:29). As with His encounter with the woman of Samaria it appears Jesus went out of His way specifically to be available to this woman and her need (John 4:4).
This woman was not shy or secretive about what she wanted from Jesus: her daughter’s deliverance from demonic oppression. She was loud, crying out and shouting, as people do when they are desperate and have come to the end of their resources. Jesus’ irritated disciples had no time for her. She was a woman, and an unclean Gentile woman at that. What could be worse? They wanted Jesus to do something to make her leave.
Jesus, however, was not co-operating with them. After first ignoring her, He makes statements that question her eligibility for His ministry, implying His healing miracles are only for the benefit of His Jewish brethren. He even appears to insult her, referring to her race as ‘little dogs’. The healing she desperately desired for her daughter was not going to come easily.
One wonders why Jesus is even engaging with this woman. This type of debate was not something that men, especially rabbis, undertook with women. But here was Jesus leading the conversation instead of walking away, as if He is waiting for something. Once again Jesus is departing sharply from cultural expectations.
The desperate woman persists, insisting that even ‘little dogs’¹, which were household dogs distinct from undomesticated street-dwelling dogs, were entitled to the crumbs from the master’s table. In so doing she declares that she is not asking for the ‘children’s bread’ but only what is left over and unwanted by ‘the children’ (the Israelites).
There were many in Israel who rejected Jesus, and her words indicate she was probably aware of this fact. The woman’s deep insight undoubtedly pleased Him. But what pleased Him even more was her belief in Him. She also believed His inherent goodness should extend to her regardless of her non-Jewish heritage.
Jesus response is immediate. After assuring her He has heard and her desire shall be granted, Jesus makes a remarkable statement: ‘Woman, great is your faith!’ He declares, speaking directly and openly to her in the hearing of all who were looking on (v.28). Though Jesus commended others indirectly for their faith, it is not recorded that He ever made such a statement directly and personally to any other person in the gospel accounts.
Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:38-42); (Matt. 26-6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8)
Jesus honored Mary of Bethany publicly on two separate occasions. The first occasion is recorded in Luke 10 at a time when Jesus was visiting and teaching in the house of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Martha, taken up with meeting her guests’ needs, was displeased that Mary was neglecting her traditional role by sitting at Jesus feet listening to His teaching instead of assisting her. She was obviously angry enough to take the unusual step of interrupting Jesus to ask Him to intervene.
The place at the teacher’s feet was traditionally reserved for male disciples. Women were expected to quietly serve and provide food, nothing more. They were to be invisible and submissive. All present in the room, except Jesus, would have been surprised at Mary’s breaking of the cultural taboos and would no doubt have silently approved Martha’s noticeable objection.
Jesus however, true to form, publicly praises Mary and refuses to do what is being demanded by sending her away. He commends Mary, stating that she has chosen something better than that which tradition dictates for her. He makes it clear He will not allow anyone to take from her the opportunity to learn at His feet as the men did.
Bravely, Mary had stepped into what was considered a male-only role. Not only was her action endorsed by Jesus, she was honored by Him publicly for choosing Him over tradition.
The second occasion, often confused with the story in Luke 7 of the sinner woman (see Part One), is recorded in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and John 12. It took place at the home of Simon the Leper and obviously had very poignant significance for Jesus, foreshadowing His crucifixion by just one week.
The alabaster flask poured by Mary on Jesus contained spikenard, a very costly perfume used only in tiny portions usually for anointing the head. Mary, however, emptied the entire flask upon Jesus’ head and feet, a huge amount worth three hundred denarii, equivalent to a year’s wages.
More than one person was upset at Mary’s extravagant action. Mark records that ‘some’ were indignant and ‘criticized her sharply’. John says Judas Iscariot objected the most, protesting that such a valuable item could have helped the poor, implying it had been wasted on Jesus.
It is at this point that Jesus speaks, sharply rebuking Judas, and defending Mary. Her anointing of Him, He declares, is in preparation for His coming burial.
For some time Jesus had been speaking to His disciples of His forthcoming death, yet blinded by their own desires and expectations, they could not accept what He was saying. Mary had perceived something the male disciples refused to acknowledge: that Jesus death was near. We do not know how much she understood of what was to soon unfold, but she obviously had begun to perceive Jesus’ role as Saviour long before others around Him did so. Jesus knew the exact reason she had anointed Him and received her extravagance unreservedly.
He then makes an extraordinary statement: ‘Assuredly I say to you wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her’ (Matt. 26:13; Mark 14:9). His Jewish followers were well acquainted with the seriousness with which God regarded memorials (Ex. 28:29; Josh. 4.7). Their scriptures were full of historic memorials marking important occasions between God and His people. The gravity of Jesus’ words declaring a memorial to this woman could not have been lost on them.
Not only that, but Jesus deliberately uses the term ‘this woman’ when endorsing her. He knows the woman before Him is Mary of Bethany, a close friend whose home He has visited many times and whose name He knows well. It seems He is making the point to the loudly protesting men around Him that it is a woman disciple who has honored Him that day and she also will be honored by His declaring a memorial to her.
It may be difficult for us in this day and age to appreciate the full cultural and historic impact of this incident. It was directly after this rebuke from Jesus that Judas, bitter and resentful, sought out the Jewish religious leaders and initiated the chain of events that would lead to Jesus arrest, trial and death just one week later.
Jesus was aware of the approaching events, but would not soften His defence of Mary in order to delay them. He told everyone present that what she had done would be spoken of in memory of her long after her death, and His.
Few witnessing that dramatic scene would have understood or approved of Jesus’ honoring a mere woman so fiercely. Yet, here we are today still considering this event and the woman who so extravagantly worshiped Him with such unashamed abandon, risking her reputation and safety in the process.
These five incidences in the Gospels give us a different picture of Jesus’ attitude to women than is conveyed, directly or indirectly, in many of our contemporary Christian settings.
There is so much to be learned from a closer study of the way Jesus interacted with women that is at odds with much complementarian teaching and practice. Proponents of complementary theology focus very much on what we believe here at Ishshah’s Story to be a misinterpretation of Paul’s and Peter’s teachings on the role of women in the Body of Christ. Other New Testament scripture passages need to be examined in the light of the words and actions of Jesus Himself, as recorded in the gospels, if imbalance and ultimately error are to be avoided.
Women are not less in value, less in function or less in leadership in the Body of Christ. Jesus, surrounded by deeply entrenched patriarchy and even open hostility towards women, took every opportunity to demonstrate that He valued the contribution of women as equal on every level to those of the men in His culture. I believe He is still of that opinion.
¹ The Greek word used in this passage is ‘kynarion’, a little dog, or puppy. Vines Expository Dictionary
Related Article: Women Jesus Honored Part One