Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Matthew 15:21-28) transports me to a crowded church in Akron, Ohio, in 1852. Various ministers—all male—have commandeered the pulpit at a women’s rights convention. In a corner sits a tall, gaunt woman dressed in a plain, gray dress and sunbonnet. She listens as the ministers one after another argue vehemently against the rights of women, declaring that Jesus was a man and that Eve brought sin into the world. After a few hours of such arguments, she can keep her seat no longer.
A hissing rush of disapproval goes up from the crowd as Sojourner Truth marches up the aisle and steps to the pulpit. She wheels around to face one of the earlier speakers. “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere,” she shouts. “Nobody ever helped me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gave me any best place. And ain’t I a woman?”
Her voice grows more fervent. “Look at me. Look at my arm. I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me—and ain’t I a woman?”
A murmur surges through the crowd, and Sojourner’s voice thunders on. “I have borne five children and seen them most all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard—and ain’t I a woman?”
The tone shifts as the crowd begins to rock the church with applause and cheers, pointing scornful fingers at the ministers they had applauded just moments before. Sojourner straightens tall and continues.
“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as man, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from?” she asks. She repeats the question, her voice a crescendo of emotion and strength: “Where did your Christ come from?” She pauses a moment, then gathers all the force of her voice. “From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him!” Glorious pandemonium breaks loose in the church.
But Sojourner is still not through. She turns to a minister who had mentioned Eve. “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, all alone—these together ought to be able to turn it back and get it rightside up again. And now that they are asking to do it, the men better let ’em.” Sojourner Truth takes her seat amid deafening cheers.1
This pillar of fire and truth, and the unnamed Canaanite woman of our passage, come from the same spirit. Both are courageous, persistent, and determined.
We can be grateful that the story of the Canaanite woman survived the censors and made it into our canon. Jesus’ initial response to the woman is harsh, and then insulting—first ignoring her and then equating her people with dogs. There are those who find the story disturbing. I find it comforting. It shows both the humanity of Jesus and the radical power of a woman. It allows us to see that the Son of God too had bad days and did not always have the clarity of call that we would like to attribute to him.
Jesus was living through a rough stretch at the time. The people of Nazareth, his hometown, had rejected him. Then word came that John the Baptist had been beheaded. In his grief, Jesus took off in a boat to be alone. But the crowds followed him, and long into the evening he cured their sick. The people hung on past the dinner hour, so Jesus fed them miraculously with five loaves of bread and two fish.
Again, Jesus went off by himself, this time to a mountain to pray. The disciples took off in a boat, which was battered by a storm through the night, and Jesus had to come to their rescue as Peter tried to walk on water and sank for lack of faith.
Once more, the crowds came and brought their sick, crying out, reaching, grabbing for Jesus’ hem so that with a touch they might be healed. Before he could catch his breath, the scribes and Pharisees arrived to confront and test him.
We can imagine that Jesus was exhausted. Faced with rejection from home and the gruesome assassination of a beloved friend, the constant clamor of the crowd and the testy confrontations of the Jewish leaders, the doubt and confusion of his own disciples, it’s no wonder that he withdrew to the borderlands of Tyre and Sidon. He was probably looking for a little peace and quiet.
But a woman began shouting at him. Spent and weary, Jesus’ first response was to ignore her. Surely, the man who asked at the edge of the cross that the cup be taken from him must have had other moments of doubt and anguished frustration, wondering whether he could bear all the demands, wishing all these clamoring, needy people would just go away.
It does not diminish Jesus that he experienced such human emotions. On the contrary, his responses in the face of such feelings speak to his deep compassion and integrity. If he were simply perfection personified, there would be little of ourselves to see in the One who was God made flesh—and little from which to draw inspiration.
Like biblical bodyguards, the annoyed disciples tried to send the pesky Canaanite woman on her way. I picture exhaustion in Jesus’ eyes as he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It was burden enough. His mission was to bring salvation to the Jews.
This woman was clearly no Jew. She was in fact a foreigner, a pagan, from a tradition that conjured ancient images of idolatry and strange religious rituals. But she was also a woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Her daughter was suffering, and she knew that Jesus had the power to do something about it. And she won him over. Without ever seeing or touching the woman’s daughter, Jesus healed her.
The implications of the woman’s encounter with Jesus reach far beyond the moment. She is the only person recorded in scripture who sparred verbally with Jesus and won; even the learned scribes and Pharisees could not claim that. She was a bearer of truth to the Son of God. She opened his eyes, broadened his perspective, changed him and his mission forever.
By the end of the Gospel, the mandate of mission is quite different: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman was the turning point. Through one marginalized, bold, persistent woman, Jesus understood that he had come to bring good news to all people.
1. Joyce Hollyday, Clothed with the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), pp. 77-78.
Joyce Hollyday is a co-founder and co-pastor of Circle of Mercy, an ecumenical congregation in Asheville, North Carolina as well as a founder of Word and World, an experiment in alternative theological education bridging the gulf between the seminary, the sanctuary, and the street. She served for fifteen years as the Associate Editor of Sojourners magazine and is the author of several books, including Clothed with the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us and Then Shall Your Light Rise: Spiritual Formation and Social Witness.