“Welcoming the ‘Whelps’: A Queer-Allied Reading of Matthew 15:21-28,” by Catie Scudera

Matthew 15:21-28 and its corollary text Mark 7:24-30 take place within a historical context of great turmoil and tragedy for the Jewish people.[1] During Jesus’s time, Pax Romana was in effect, wherein the Roman Empire suppressed any speech or deed that could disrupt that peace, in particular calls for greater autonomy or independence from the empire. At the time that the author of Matthew would have been writing his Gospel, the Pax Romana would have become increasingly violent toward those in the Palestinian region because of the Jewish-Roman War in the late 60’s C.E. that ended in the destruction of the Jewish Temple. Early readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have been well-aware of both their own and Jesus’s cultural contexts.[2]

This pericope in Matthew 15 begins with Jesus and his disciples traveling into the region of Tyre and Sidon, a borderland between the Jewish people of Palestine and non-Jews to the north.[3] Jesus had just left an argument with other Jewish leaders regarding purity laws and “what defiles” a person (Matt. 15:1-20). While out in public, Jesus and his disciples are approached by a Canaanite woman begging for their assistance. She breaks cultural rules of feminine propriety and submissiveness by approaching their group of (presumably) all men by herself.[4] Presented here are the Nestle-Aland Greek text and my own translation of Matthew 15:21-28:[5]

21 Καὶ ἐξελθὼν ἐκεῖθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἀνεχώρησεν εἰς τὰ μέρη Τύρου καὶ Σιδῶνος. 22 καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ Χαναναία ἀπὸ τῶν ὁρίων ἐκείνων ἐξελθοῦσα ἔκραζεν λέγουσα, Ἐλέησόν με, κύριε, υἱὸς Δαυίδ: ἡ θυγάτηρ μου κακῶς δαιμονίζεται. 23 ὁ δὲ οὐκ ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῇ λόγον. καὶ προσελθόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἠρώτουν αὐτὸν λέγοντες, Ἀπόλυσον αὐτήν, ὅτι κράζει ὄπισθεν ἡμῶν. 24 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Οὐκ ἀπεστάλην εἰ μὴ εἰς τὰ πρόβατα τὰ ἀπολωλότα οἴκου Ἰσραήλ. 25 ἡ δὲ ἐλθοῦσα προσεκύνει αὐτῷ λέγουσα, Κύριε, βοήθει μοι. 26 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Οὐκ ἔστιν καλὸν λαβεῖν τὸν ἄρτον τῶν τέκνων καὶ βαλεῖν τοῖς κυναρίοις. 27 ἡ δὲ εἶπεν, Ναί, κύριε, καὶ γὰρ τὰ κυνάρια ἐσθίει ἀπὸ τῶν ψιχίων τῶν πιπτόντων ἀπὸ τῆς τραπέζης τῶν κυρίων αὐτῶν. 28 τότε ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῇ, ὦ γύναι, μεγάλη σου ἡ πίστις: γενηθήτω σοι ὡς θέλεις. καὶ ἰάθη ἡ θυγάτηρ αὐτῆς ἀπὸ τῆς ὥρας ἐκείνης.

21 And leaving from there, Jesus withdrew into the parts of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold a Canaanite woman from that border was coming and crying out loud, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David. My daughter is badly possessed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And coming near, his disciples were asking him, saying, “Dismiss her, for she cries out loud after us.” 24 And the one answering said, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But the one coming prostrated herself before him saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And the one answering said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and to throw [it] to the whelps.” 27 But she said, “True, Lord, for even the whelps eat from the falling crumbs from the table of their lords.” 28 Then answering, Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great. Let it happen to you as you will.” And her daughter was healed from that time.

In some ways, this pericope follows the basic formula of miraculous healing stories: Jesus is out in public, someone “impure” but faithful comes to him for assistance, and he heals that person or the person’s loved one.[6] If Jesus had simply granted the Canaanite woman’s initial request, this passage would not be so remarkable. The extraordinary amount of scriptural interpretation of this text comes from Jesus’s unusually harsh reaction to the Canaanite woman. Jesus’s response is especially strange in the context of Pax Romana, wherein both Jesus’s Jewish region and the woman’s Canaanite region were colonized and suppressed by the Roman Empire. As Thomas Bohache writes, “This struggle takes on the character of what sociologists call ‘horizontal violence,’ when, under the control of an oppressive power, marginalized groups turn on each other.”[7] This passage is also unique in the Canaanite woman’s retort to Jesus’s pitiless response. Unlike the Matthaen formula for controversy stories, Jesus does not best this person he argues with. Instead, the Canaanite woman has “the last word,” beating Jesus with the same sort of wit he himself often used successfully in debates against the scribes and Pharisees.[8]

Jesus’s cruelty and the Canaanite woman’s perseverance make this a popular text in both traditional biblical scholarship as well as post-modern, ideological hermeneutics. Post-colonial and feminist scholars have used this text to discuss the oppression that colonized persons and women face from the church and society at large. The story of the Canaanite woman is also studied in the newer field of queer New Testament scholarship. I explore Matthew 15:21-28 from a slightly different lens, which I have deemed “queer-allied.”  In the next section of this article, I describe my own social location and interest in this pericope, following the practice of other ideological/standpoint scholars. Then, I define “queer,” “queer theory,” and the proposed “queer-allied” theological stance. Next, I summarize traditional and ideological/standpoint interpretations of the passage, as both have influenced queer scholarship on Matthew 15:21-28. Lastly, I give a line-by-line interpretation of the passage as a queer-allied reader.

I am a Euro-American Unitarian Universalist candidate for ministry in the United States. I have worked for many years as a heterosexual ally to the queer rights movement. Until my entrance into seminary, my involvement in the queer rights movement was ostensibly secular. Now that I am pursuing a call to ordination, I am reframing my motivation to work for equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer (GLBTQ) persons in theological terms.

As a queer ally, I am interested in Matthew 15:21-28 because in Jesus’s and his disciples’ treatment of the Canaanite woman, I recognize “the Church’s” treatment of queer persons. Some faith communities are more overt than others in their rejection of queer persons. Some queer persons are thrown out of churches because the congregation’s leadership and membership tell them that they are “sinners” and not children of God. Other queer persons are told that their faith community “isn’t ready” to change its prejudicial theology and open its doors to non-heterosexual people. Still more queer persons are turned away because their needs are ignored and unrecognized due to the heteronormative (and heterosexist) American culture that has seeped through the church’s walls.[9] As Bohache writes:

Just as Matthew’s audience would have received the words of the Gospel amid the memory of slavery, occupation, exile, oppressive taxation and government-approved murder, so too today’s queer reader comes to this Gospel mindful of the queer history of church- and government-sponsored burnings, false imprisonment, executions, fag-bashing and lesbian-baiting; as well as prejudice and exclusion at all levels of society, unequal treatment under the law despite equal taxation, and daily mental colonial occupation at the hands of a heterosexist society.[10]

I am angry at Jesus and his disciples for their mistreatment of the Canaanite woman in need—regardless of the fact that, in the end, her request is fulfilled. Their initial abusive words and actions toward the disadvantaged woman are inexcusable. In the context of queer theology, this pericope shows Jesus and his disciples perpetuating bigotry.

The rest of this article is located here.
Image by Jutka Kovacs

[1] Though this pericope appears in both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospel, this paper will focus on the version presented by the author of Matthew.

[2] Thomas Bohache, “Matthew,” in The Queer Bible Commentary, ed. Deryn Guest et al. (London: SCM Press, 2006), 489-492

[3] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, trans. James E. Crouch, ed. Helmut Koester (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 338-339

[4] Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, But She Said (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 103

[5] The Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece lists minor textual variants in these verses, but none are particularly significant neither in regard to their sources nor in how they effect an English translation. All biblical quotations from Matthew 15:21-28 are from my translation; other biblical quotations come from the New International Version (2011).

[6] “Healing,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 299-306

[7] Bohache, “Matthew,” 490

[8] Schussler Fiorenza, But She Said, 11-12

[9] Such treatment of queer believers by heterosexual/heterosexist churches is also described in: Justin Tanis, “Eating the Crumbs That Fall from the Table: Trusting the Abundance of God” in Take Back The Word: a queer reading of the Bible, ed. Robert E. Goss and Mona West (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2000), 43-56.

[10] Bohache, “Matthew,” 490

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One thought on ““Welcoming the ‘Whelps’: A Queer-Allied Reading of Matthew 15:21-28,” by Catie Scudera

  1. I, too, was mad a Jesus upon reading this passage. And I did some thinking about why I was feeling angry.

    The People of Israel and the Canaanites did not associate ever since Delilah tricked Sampson to tell his secret. Jesus hesitated at first, but then he broke hundreds of years of tradition by speaking to the race of Delilah. And he did something else that was unacceptable: (1) he spoke to a woman, (2) on her own, (3) in broad daylight. And he did something else: he addressed her using a word reserved for the highest honored, most distinguished women. And he did something else that was completely and utterly impure: he, being a Rabbi, said to this non-Jew, “Great is your faith”—the opposite of what he told Peter when he was frightened by the waves and sank into the water.

    I hate to give away the ending, but many of us already know what followed. A week or so following this incident, Jesus continued the social upheaval by overturning the tables in the Temple. His disciples abandoned him. His intimate friend Judas betrayed him. His most fierce defender, Peter, denied even knowing Jesus. The Roman authorities and all people of the land hand-picked Jesus as being the social problem du jure, yelling, “Crucify him.” Jesus is made foreigner. His boundless, sacrificial love seals his fate.

    Not only was it difficult for Jesus to associate with a female of a different race, culture and creed. We must remember that she had to make the same compromises to seek out Jesus. Canaanites weren’t too keen on Jews, either. If a rivalry had continued for hundreds of years, and you’re a Canaanite, then the last place you would want to turn for help… would be among Jews—who are foreigners that might be carrying weapons.
    And so the other side of the Gospel—the Good News—is this: It was probably very difficult for the woman to lower herself enough to associate with this Semitic man—or stop him on the side of the road, especially when the other Semitic men travelling with him were criticizing her. What an awful position that put her in! And culturally, for her to associate with men made her appear a “loose woman.” Yet she needed help for her daughter. She had heard about this Jesus. Maybe word got out about the feeding of the multitudes, or maybe she heard about the healing and teaching that took place in Gennesaret. But somehow, this woman was moved to break her own social conventions to seek the touch of Jesus. And she called him LORD. And she recognized him as a descendant of King David. This Canaanite is one of the first Gentiles to come to Jesus. In order to do so, she had to count the cost. She had to become an outcast in her own society by going out in broad daylight and associate with at least 13 foreign men—Jesus and his Disciples. She had to put the health of her daughter above her own pride. But I’m left with some questions: Did the people of her town cast her out? Did she start following Jesus along with the Disciples? Did she have a husband, and was he jealous that she talked with men on the street? If her husband was jealous, was she stoned to death? We do not know for certain, but it is important to note that all of these are possible outcomes for this woman. Even before the curtain was torn on Good Friday, she becomes one of the first gentiles grafted to the tree of David—because of her risk.
    What faith! What sacrifice!

    I wonder if it is difficult for lesbian, gay, bi and trans individuals to enter the doors of our congregations, even if they boldly profess that we are an Open and Affirming congregation. What great faith they have in entering any church! And we are called to love these wounded and holy children of God—these perfect creations of the divine will. We are called to travel from Genesseret to Tyre and Sidon and to associate with everyone we meet along the way, outside these church walls. That is our Earth-bound duty, for those who follow the Golden Rule.

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