by Father Mike Stubbs
Have you ever been called a Yankee? This term, which designates those who live in the North as opposed to the South, now sounds somewhat antiquated, since the Civil War ended so many years ago.
Similarly, Protestants used to call Catholics, “papists.” Once again, this term, which also carried pejorative overtones, has fallen into disuse in our own days.
Words often carry a lot of baggage. If we unpack them, we will understand them better. As we listen to Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 15:21-28, one word stands out as a key to unlocking its meaning. That word is “Canaanite.”
According to most scholars, Matthew based his Gospel on that of Mark. That is why we find essentially the same story in Sunday’s Gospel reading in Mk 7:24-30. However, in borrowing this story from Mark, Matthew tweaked it a bit. Mark had described the woman who seeks Jesus’ help as “a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth.” Matthew, instead calls her a “Canaanite.”
In this choice of wording, Matthew rejects the more neutral description of Mark’s Gospel in favor of a loaded word that had fallen out of currency, much like “Yankee” or “papist” for us. The word “Canaanite” hearkened back to the days when the Israelites were contending with the Canaanites, natives of the Promised Land, for its possession. The Canaanites did not worship the God of Israel. They were pagans.
That supplies some of the background for our Gospel story. It is a story of healing. Jesus grants the woman’s request that her sick daughter be healed: “And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.”
But this is much more than merely the story of a physical healing. It is also the story of the healing of the relationship between two estranged peoples, the Jews and the Gentiles, designated by the term “Canaanite.” It is the story of healing attitudes of hostility and suspicion, inherited animosity and prejudice. This story begins with Jesus Christ.
St. Paul describes it in this way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
St. Paul is saying how our faith in Jesus Christ calls us to move beyond differences of ethnicity and social status as we serve God. Ultimately, our faith calls us to fulfill the prophecy that we hear in the first reading: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is 56:7).
And it all starts with this encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.