An Anti-Modernist Meditation on the Woman of Canaan

One of the methods to my madness in selecting subjects for my show, Reconquest, is to take scandalous current events in the Church as occasions of edifying my listeners by giving the proper Catholic outlook on a question — citing approved sources. So, for example, when, in 2017, there was a brouhaha over the decision to alter the Italian translation of the Our Father, and uninformed talking heads suddenly became expert linguistic commentators (waxing eloquent on Aramaic, no less), I interviewed a real scholar and had a very good discussion on the subject.

Along the same lines, when the scandal of Father Antonio Spadaro’s commentary on Our Lord’s meeting with the Canaanite woman broke, I thought I should do an episode on that subject, using the distressing current event as a springboard to discuss the Christological questions at hand and show, by contrast, how genuine Catholic commentators discussed the episode. Hence, The Jesuit and the Canaanitess.

As I spent time consulting good source material on the subject, I thought it would be good to write and Ad Rem on the subject too, not to critique Father Spadaro’s bizarre reading further, but to edify my readers by showing how approved Catholic commentators discuss the encounter between Jesus and this amazing woman.

The episode is related by Saints Matthew (15:21-28) and Mark (7:24-30). Jesus ventured from Galilee into pagan country to the north — the land of the Caananites, whose chief cities were Tyre and Sidon (modern day Ṣūr and Saida in Lebanon). Exactly where He was we are not told, except in the “district” or “coasts” of those Phoenician cities. He arrives at some point in a house where He has (or continues) a discussion with this woman, called a Canaanite by Matthew and a Syrophenician by Mark — the latter more a geographical than an ethnic label. She begs Jesus for her daughter to be delivered from the demon who possesses her. The interaction of Jesus with this poor woman is fascinating. Clearly, the Master is “up to something,” there being much more to the exchange than immediately meets the eye. It is not — pace Fathers Spadaro and Martin — the woman who changes Jesus; the truth is diametrically the other way round.

The good lady asks a favor, showing that she has faith by addressing Our Lord by His Messianic title: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David: my daughter is grieviously troubled by the devil” (Matt. 15:22; except where otherwise noted, all scriptural citations are to Matt. 15) First, He ignores her; He “answered her not a word” (v. 23), prompting the disciples to ask Him to send her away — with her favor granted, says Saint John Chrysostom.

Then, He acts as if He were not inclined to help because, as the Master says, “I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel” (v. 24). First ignored, now unfavorably compared to the flock that she does not belong to. Ouch! Fragility or wounded pride would send others home to grumble about a heartless prophet who must be a fraud. What does she do? “But she came and adored him, saying: Lord, help me” (v. 25). Saint Mark has it that she “came in [into the “house” He arrived at, that is] and fell down at his feet” (Mk. 7:25). Assuredly, the Master must now have mercy, right?

No! “It is not good to take the bread of the children, and to cast it to the dogs,” He says (v. 26). Now, not only is she not a sheep of the Israelite flock Jesus was sent to by His Father, but she is a dog, whereas the Israelites are children! Surely, if anyone had reason to think Jesus would not grant a favor, it is this poor woman. (Saint John Chrysostom points out that the children of Israel had certain miracles performed for them simply by bringing Him the sick and the lame, but not so with the Canaanitess: “Do you see, how the [Canaanite] woman indeed He healed with so much delay, but these [Jews] immediately? Not because these are better than she is, but because she is more faithful than they.”)

She does not let even this phase her. In fact, she takes up the insult and uses it — not a badge of honor, but something much more valuable, a special claim on Our Lord’s mercy: “But she said: Yea, Lord; for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters” (v. 27). I’m a dog, she effectively says, so please give me what dogs get — morsels from their masters’ tables!

As an aside, Saint Dominic’s mother, Blessed Jane of Aza, saw her still in-utero son in a dream as a little whelp lighting the world on fire — and, by a curious linguistic accident, the Dominican friars became known as “God’s dogs.” My patron, Saint Andre Bessette, called himself “Saint Joseph’s little dog.” While these charming canine associations with the saints have an undoubtedly positive connotation in our minds, Our Lord’s use of the word was not a compliment and could easily have led the woman to take offense, which gives us all the more reason to praise her faith, hope, humility, patience, perseverance, constancy, resignation, confidence, and her marvelous prudence in turning Our Lord’s seeming insult around to her benefit — or, rather, to the benefit of her daughter; let us not forget that this poor woman is a loving mother seeking help for her demonically possessed child.

At long last, now she is rewarded: “Then Jesus answering, said to her: O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt: and her daughter was cured from that hour” (v. 28). Saint Mark (7:30) adds, “And when she was come into her house, she found the girl lying upon the bed, and that the devil was gone out.” A happy ending, to be sure!

Our Lord’s interactions with people in the Gospels are compelling and, if we pay close attention, very revealing. Consider the Samaritan woman, who, by a similar treatment, is elevated from the status of a shameful adulteress to a believer in Christ and a zealous apostle of her own people. Those who have good will are never left “where they are” after an encounter with Our Lord. Jesus elevates them, sanctifying them by various means. As the divine Physician, He sometimes employs pleasant curatives, other times astringent ones. That is what He is doing here. He is trying this woman, who already has faith — she has used His proper Messianic title and knows He can cure her daughter — giving her the occasion to show her faith for the edification of her neighbors (as Saint John Chrysostom points out). More than that though, Our Lord as it were forces her to practice her faith as well as the other virtues mentioned above. As true God, He is the giver of the actual grace she needs to practice these supernatural virtues; as perfect Man, He is the proximate occasion for her exercise of them.

All that has been said so far pertains to the literal sense of this beautiful passage from the Gospel. We can push further and apply the other senses of the quadriga, namely, the allegorical, tropological, and anagogical.

Allegorically, this woman is the Church, solicitous for her own children’s spiritual good. Where does Jesus meet her? In the “coasts” (or “district”) of Tyre and Sidon, which were ancient Phoenician cities on the coastal plain to the southwest of Mount Lebanon. FFIs it too much of a stretch to apply to this woman the words of the inspired Canticle of Solomon (4:8): “Come from Libanus, my spouse, come from Libanus, come”? Jesus goes into the country of Lebanon to woo His bride, the gentile Church.

Along these lines, Cornelius a Lapide says,

Allegorically, this gentile daughter is the Church of the gentiles which, once excluded from salvation by God’s justice, now has burst through an opening of mercy and broken down the doors of the kingdom of heaven. Then a great change took place: The Jews, who were formerly the children, because of their unbelief in Christ became as dogs, according to the words, Many dogs have encompassed me (Ps. 21:17), and so like dogs ate bones (that is the literal meaning of sacred scripture). But the gentiles, which were dogs, have been made children, and eat at Christ’s table the bread of the Eucharist and the hidden meaning of sacred scripture, as it were the marrow and fatness of the wheat.

Saint John Chrysostom sees this allegory, too:

And some also taking it as an allegory say, that when Christ came out of Judea, then the church ventured to approach Him, coming out herself also from her own coasts. For it is said, “Forget your own people and your father’s house” [Ps. 44:11]. For both Christ went out of His borders, and the woman out of her borders, and so it became possible for them to fall in with each other: thus He says, “Behold a woman of Canaan coming out of her own coasts [Matt. 15:22].”

In connection with this ecclesiastical allegory, we can consider the names Tyre and Sidon, which mean, respectively, “rock,” and “fishery” (sources: here, here, here, here, and here). Jesus founded His Church on a Rock who was also a fisherman. Moreover, the fish was the symbol, in the patristic era, of Christians (go here and search for “fish” for a single paragraph on the fish-Christian symbology).

Tropologically, Jesus is revealing to us how each Christian soul ought to treat with Him and how He treats with her. If Our Lord alternately seems to ignore, slight, and insult us through the trials He sends or permits, it is so that He can first elicit, and then (in Heaven), praise our virtues. God is good — always good — and sometimes He acts with us pleasantly, sometimes, as already mentioned, astringently. What is sweet and pleasant attaches us closer to His Majesty; what is bitter and unpleasant turns us away from creatures. Both elicit in us acts of faith, hope, love, humility, abandonment, and the rest: just as they did in our beautiful Syrophenician.

Is there an anagogical meaning to this? Here, I am on my own as I have not encountered one in my readings. At the end of his account, Saint Mark (7:30) tells us, “And when she was come into her house, she found the girl lying upon the bed, and that the devil was gone out.” This is deliverance or salvation: a foreshadowing of the heavenly state. Also, by peeking ahead a verse, to the beginning of the narration of the multiplication of the loaves that follows in this same chapter of Matthew, we see that Jesus “passed away from thence…. And going up into a mountain, he sat there” (v. 29), as if consummating the whole episode by ascending in heavenly glory.

Thus concludes my own anti-Modernist meditation on the woman of Canaan. What follows by way of a coda are…

Additional Nuggets Mined from
Cornelius a Lapide’s Great Commentary

A Lapide himself praises the woman’s resignation and confidence in Christ:

The woman does not add, “Come and deliver her.” She only represents her affliction to Christ. She leaves the rest to His prudence and His love, trusting that He will provide help to her daughter in a convenient manner. In this she shows her marvelous resignation, and her confidence in Christ.

A Lapide and the saints note the quality of her prayer:


Commenting on the woman “crying after” our Lord, a Lapide cites Saint Augustine (Epist. 121, c. 15): “[F]rom the pleading and fervent heart, groans unutterable are emitted, whereby Christ is soothed, as with sweet music.”

She persisted more eagerly, she was more hopeful, she cried more loudly, indeed, she continued to follow Christ, even into the house, as Mark 7:24-25 relates it. And by this her constancy, humility, and perseverance she deserved to be heard.

“[S]he was persistent in prayers, wise in her answers, faithful in her words. (Saint Ambrose, lib. 5 in Lucam, sub finem)

In like manner, Christ often stings, humbles, and mortifies holy souls, that they may ask yet more humbly and ardently, that they may obtain. Wisely says S. Chrysostom (hom. 30 in Gen.): ‘Whether we obtain what we ask, or do not obtain, let us persevere always in prayer. And let us give thanks, not only when we obtain, but even when we suffer a repulse. For when God denies us anything, It is no less a favor than if He granted it. For we know not as He knows what is good for us.

See here the efficacy of fervent prayer, as Jacob wrestles with the angel and overcame him, and obtained the blessing which he asked. Therefore, was he called Israel, that is, strong against God (Gen. 32:28). Prayer, therefore, makes us Israels, having power with God.”

Her humility was rewarded:

Saint Peter Chrysologus (serm. 100): “She who confessed that she was a dog was deservedly changed into a human being. Deservedly is she adopted as a daughter, and raised to the honor of the table, who in her praiseworthy humility cast herself beneath the table.”

Chrysostom: “He had repulsed her so that the sequence of events might lead to this declaration, and He might adorn the woman with a shining crown.”