How does one best care for marginalized people, those who have been isolated from community, stigmatized by society, and even neglected or wounded by the Church? This question led me to seminary. It inspired me to study the Bible in deeper, more focused ways. It prompted me to enroll in courses which explored issues of individual and communal brokenness — things which bred social marginality and isolation. Grappling with this question within these courses forced me to ask hard questions of myself, Scripture and God. These inquiries could not be pacified by the prototypical Sunday school responses; and as a result, I ended up reading, researching, and writing extensively on these issues, all in a diligent pursuit to answer this one question.
While this question is still a thorn in my side, along the way there have been revelatory moments. There have been times where God has met me in the text and I received fresh insights which have profoundly shaped and enriched my pastoral ministry. Throughout this sojourn, I have been reminded of God’s care for and presence with those existing alongside the margins of society. I also found myself captivated by a biblical character who I believe personifies the various categories that I have been wrestling with, the nameless Canaanite woman of Matthew 15: 21-28.
While theologians have correctly articulated how her interaction with Jesus foretells the Gentile inclusion into the mission and Kingdom of God, this text has more to say than just this. First, a close reading of the text mandates that we ask a few questions. What are the scriptural implications of being a Canaanite, nameless, and the parent of a demon possessed child?
Biblical scholar Craig Keener says that the Canaanites are depicted as “the bitter biblical enemies of Israel whose paganism had often led Israel into idolatry.” Another scholar writes, “[the nameless woman] is a member of the condemned Canaanites who are to be offered to the Lord as a whole burnt offering of purification of the land to God.” However, this negative depiction of Canaanites is not the only legacy Scripture provides. In fact, two Canaanite women, Tamar and Rahab, are included in the direct genealogy of Jesus. This is significant because Tamar’s life symbolizes one of the most victimized scriptural realities, and Rahab illustrates one of the most unlikely characters of biblical faithfulness, not only because of her vocation, but also due to the marginalization and stigmas it caused. The fact that these two women are both Canaanites, yet are directly included within the traceable lineage of Christ is not coincidental, nor is the fact that this nameless woman’s ethnic and gendered identity is also that of a Canaanite woman. Through the incorporation of these women within the direct lineage of Christ, Scripture illustrates how Jesus literally becomes identified with their marginalization, and, as is the case with sin, takes on that marginalization.
Ostracization due to Demon Possession
We know the kind of social stigmatization that accompanied demon possession through the numerous New Testament accounts of those ostracized from society because of this label. However, Jesus, who is finally won over by this woman’s perseverance, faith, and insistence upon her child’s restoration at the end of this passage, refuses to abide by the commodifying logic of his culture, time, and place. Jesus not only heals the daughter, but provides restoration that far surpasses this woman’s request. Through the restoration that Jesus grants, both the nameless woman and her daughter are free to experience life anew socially, culturally, and relationally. The holistic nature of the restoration that Jesus provides not only liberates this woman’s daughter from demons, but also offers them both access (as well as all other Gentiles) to everlasting life with God. Moreover, as this passage concludes, ethnicity no longer serves as a barrier to entering the kingdom of God.
Go and Do Likewise
Those who were once far are brought near. Canaanites are no longer to be seen or treated as bitter enemies (although many persist in seeing them this way due to depravity), but are now to be embraced as brothers and sisters. This is how Jesus cared for marginalized people, those isolated from community and stigmatized by society. As the Church today, we are called to go and do likewise. Empowered by the Spirit, we can resuscitate dry bones, renew abandoned hope, and foster new life — reconciled life with God and neighbor. But we must be willing to be transformed and take on the mindset of Christ to authentically do this work. At the beginning of this passage, the disciples tell Jesus to send this nameless woman away. Is this the way we are responding to marginalized women as the Church today, to the Tamars, Rahabs and women who feel nameless within our midst? Do the Tamars of our day — women who have been sexually abused and violated by those closest to them — see the Church as a place of restoration? Do the Rahabs of our time — women stigmatized because of their vocation as prostitutes or other work that is socially shunned — feel welcomed, loved, and accepted within our midst? Do defamed women who feel nameless throughout society still feel anonymous, unacknowledged, and unloved when they enter the Church, or are they known, empowered, and restored by the love of God that we embody and illuminate as communities of faith?