The National Catholic Review

In turning to the teachings of the Church Fathers on Matthew 15:22-28, I am drawing on the Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas for Matthew, who gathered portions of the Patristic writings on particular passages for each Gospel and which are now available online, albeit in a rather old and stilted translation. The Fathers draw a number of implications from this encounter of the Canaanite woman with Jesus. In a gloss from Anselm (glosses which were attributed in part to Anselm of Laon; 12th century), he concentrates on the faith of the woman and her acceptance of Jesus as God ("Lord"), the one who can heal her daughter: "She claims nothing of her own desert, but craves only God’s mercy." John Chrysostom (Hom. in quaedam loca, xlvii) says, "Note the wisdom of this woman, she went not to men who promised fair, she sought not useless bandages, but leaving all devilish charms, she came to the Lord. She asked not James, she did not pray John, or apply to Peter, but putting herself under the protection of penitence, she ran alone to the Lord. But, behold, a new trouble. She makes her petition, raising her voice into a shout, and God, the lover of mankind, answers not a word." Chrysostom perceives the problem, just as the author(s) of the lenten reflections of the Anglican Church of Canada do, although Chrysostom notes, as the lenten reflections do not, that the woman bypasses the Apostles and goes directly to Jesus. She knows who can help her. So, what does it mean that Jesus does not respond initially and that when he does he tells her that he only came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel?

One of the key reasons cited by the Church fathers is that it shows the faith and perseverance of the woman. This is not, however, the only reason cited. Jerome states that the Apostles are "ignorant of the mysteries of God" and not moved by compassion. They need to learn from Jesus. Yet, he does not answer her, as Chrysostom points out: "But the more the woman urged her petition, the more He strengthened His denial." The order to which I pointed in the second post, the necessity of the mission to Israel first then the mission to the Gentiles, appears in a way in a gloss from Anselm, though not fully developed. "It is not then meet that these should be taken from the children and given to the Gentiles, who are dogs, till the Jews refuse them." Whether it was necessary for "the Jews to refuse them" is, to my mind, debatable; what was necessary is that the offer is made first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. Remigius of Auxerre (9th century) states that this, allegorically, prefigures the whole gentile mission: "This woman figures the Holy Church gathered out of the Gentiles. The Lord leaves the Scribes and Pharisees, and comes into the parts of Tyre and Sidon; this figures His leaving the Jews and going over to the Gentiles. This woman came out of her own country, because the Holy Church departed from former errors and sins." This, it seems to me, is a plausible allegorical reading, built upon the literal sense of the text. The reality is, this encounter did prefigure and portend the coming gentile mission and Church.

The fathers see Jesus as testing the woman’s evident and strong faith – for she accepts Jesus as the one who can heal her daughter - and, indeed, prefiguring the entire Gentile mission. There is no sustained focus amongst the Church fathers, except possibly Jerome’s claim that the Apostles are "ignorant of the mysteries of God," of my major focus in the second post: that Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman is an attempt to teach the Apostles to understand the validity and necessity of the Gentile mission, in which they will soon partake. I think it is precisely a focus on the historical and literary contexts of Matthew and Mark, in this instance, which allow us to perceive this important dimension of interpretation in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman.

Yet nothing has been said in this section of the Catena Aurea regarding Jesus’ lack of knowledge regarding the Gentile mission. At least in the Fathers which Aquinas gathered on Matthew 15:22-28, it seems not to have crossed their minds. They accept Jesus’ actions in this instance as part of his divine plan. This is not, though, because it never crossed the minds of the Fathers as to how Jesus, both God and man, acquired knowledge during his Incarnation. It crossed their minds especially with respect to Luke 2:52. At no point, though, do they see this in the context of Jesus needing to turn away from false opinions or sin. Again, I turn to the Catena Aurea, in this case on Luke. Two of the Cappadocian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil, see in Jesus’ advancement in wisdom the need to be obedient to his parents. Gregory goes farther, though, in saying that "The young have not yet perfect understanding, and have need to be led forward by those who have advanced to a more perfect point." Cyril does ask, "how if he is the true wisdom can he be increased?" Cyril answers himself saying that Christ increases in the sense not that "his nature which was perfect from the beginning received increase, but that by degrees it was manifested." Theophilus agrees with this, and says that Jesus is not becoming "wise by making progress, but that by degrees he revealed his wisdom."

Aquinas himself agrees with Gregory and Theophilus. He asks the question in the Summa Theologica, Tertia Pars, Question 12: Article 1: "Whether Christ advanced in this acquired or empiric knowledge?" He gives three objections to this premise:

"Objection 1: It would seem that Christ did not advance in this knowledge. For even as Christ knew all things by His beatific and His infused knowledge, so also did He by this acquired knowledge, as is plain from what has been said (1). But He did not advance in these knowledges. Therefore neither in this.

Objection 2: Further, to advance belongs to the imperfect, since the perfect cannot be added to. Now we cannot suppose an imperfect knowledge in Christ. Therefore Christ did not advance in this knowledge.

Objection 3: Further, Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iii, 22): "Whoever say that Christ advanced in wisdom and grace, as if receiving additional sensations, do not venerate the union which is in hypostasis." But it is impious not to venerate this union. Therefore it is impious to say that His knowledge received increase."

In response to these objections, Aquinas cites Luke 2:52 that Jesus did indeed advance in knowledge. "There is a twofold advancement in knowledge: one in essence, inasmuch as the habit of knowledge is increased; the other in effect--e.g. if someone were with one and the same habit of knowledge to prove to someone else some minor truths at first, and afterwards greater and more subtle conclusions. Now in this second way it is plain that Christ advanced in knowledge and grace, even as in age, since as His age increased He wrought greater deeds, and showed greater knowledge and grace." So Thomas acknowledges that as a human being, Jesus, who grows and develops as do all human beings, does come to greater knowledge about himself and his mission. Thomas attributes to Jesus, however, in addition to this developing human knowledge," infused knowledge" and "divine knowledge" and this divine knowledge, the beatific vision, cannot increase "since from the beginning he had perfect infused knowledge of all things." What Christ increased in, according to Thomas, is acquired knowledge which is caused by "the active intellect which does not produce the whole at once, but successively; and hence by this knowledge Christ did not know everything, but step by step, and after a time."

What does this tell us? That the Fathers and Thomas allow that Christ had to grow, not in divine or human wisdom, not in perfection, but in experiential or empirical wisdom as every human being must. If we take Christ’s divinity seriously, we cannot attribute to him sin or false beliefs about Gentiles, even Canaanite women. If we take seriously his humanity, perhaps this was the encounter in which Jesus’ perfect infused knowledge regarding the Gentile mission developed empirically and experientially. In no way, however, does Jesus have to forego false attitudes or racist beliefs. The lenten reflections of the Anglican Church of Canada fail in terms of modern biblical scholarship and in terms of the theology and doctrines of Christianity. The resources are there, however, in the ancient, the medieval, and the modern Church to deal with all of these issues and they must be utilized in coming to a full understanding of Scripture.