Here is the panel “Christ and the Canaanite Woman” by Juan de Flandes, pseudonym of a painter of the late 15th and early 16th century belonging to the school of Spanish-Flemish art. This painting of forty-seven small panels commissioned by Queen Isabella the Catholic was executed at the time when the artist was in her service. About twenty-seven of these panels remain, including Christ and the Canaanite woman.
The painter placed Jesus in the brightest part of his painting, on the right. Kneeling before him, the Canaanite pleads with him. On the left, the group of disciples: they are dressed in simple coats, like Jesus himself, as often portrayed by the painters of that time. In contrast, the woman and a man wearing a turban, on the left, are dressed as the inhabitants of the Turkish Middle East were represented at the time: Jesus is in a foreign country, even hostile; the looks of the disciples on the man wearing the turban underline this. Behind Jesus, Peter seems to address him, echoing the disciples’ judgments: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
This Gospel of the Canaanite woman is interesting, isn’t it? It’s about having the humility to ask, when the conditions are not good, do not play in our favour. The Canaanite woman is from the region of Tyre and Sidon. The equivalent of current Lebanon. In Jesus’ day, this region had a religion and a culture that were completely foreign to the Jewish faith and culture. They were seen by the people of Israel as being marginal… pagans… and really, they were treated like dogs.
My first point is that in some ways, each of us is the Canaanite woman… at least in some situations, at some time in of our life. Whether it be because of where we come from, because of our family background, because of our accent, because of some form of ‘marginality’… we may have been in a situation where we were discarded, rejected, mocked or simply considered as less than human.
But the second point I’d like to make about this Gospel, is really connected to the call to discipleship, and to the Franciscan mission that is ours. As Evangelizers and as Gospel witnesses in the world! Jesus shows great pedagogy here. He’s ‘training his disciples’. The situation, I repeat, is that Canaanites are rejected, disrespected and ill-considered by the people of Israel. They’re not deemed worthy of attention and the accepted attitude is to simply ignore them. Jesus knows this. And he knows why the judgments are so harsh with regards to Canaanites, and acknowledges it, but takes the situation further. «Woman, great is your faith», he says… If we only pay attention to their reputation… we risk not seeing their heart. And when we don’t consider the heart, we miss out on what’s essential…
Evangelizing is all about following Christ, and here Jesus is showing us that there are no boundaries to God’s love. Universal brotherhood, universal Sisterhood… Fraternity without boundaries… This is what we’re sent out to proclaim!
This poor Canaanite mother, a stranger to the faith of Israel, is presented to us as an example of faith, courage and love.