Last Sunday, we thought about what it means to have faith as we read Matthew’s account of Jesus coming to the disciples in the boat walking on the water. Peter wants to join in. He responds to Jesus’ command to come, climbs out of the boat and begins to make his way to Jesus walking on water. All is well when he concentrates on Jesus, but when he takes his eyes off him, he feels the wind and sees the waves, his faith wavers and he begins to sink.
Faith is not an easy thing. It takes courage and determination. There will be many knocks along the way. Think for a moment of an experience you are having or have had which has involved an element of faith. It may be learning a new skill, undertaking a tricky journey or getting through an illness. What knocked you back and caused you to doubt that you would come through it? What gave you greater resolve and helped you to keep going? What did you focus upon as your goal?
Today’s gospel reading is Matthew’s account of an encounter Jesus has with a Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon to the north of Galilee. (Matthew 15.21-28) It is not an easy story for us because looking at it through the lens of our culture, Jesus appears racist as he alludes that all who are not Jews are dogs. So, we need to step back a little and see the incident set within the context of the culture of the day, to see it as an example of enlightened and persistent faith which opens the possibility of Christian belief for the Gentile not just the Jewish world.
The first thing to understand about this incident in Jesus’ ministry is that it is no accident or chance encounter. Jesus deliberately leaves the regions in which he usually ministered, the predominantly Jewish provinces of Galilee and Judea to travel into Phoenicia which was dominated by Gentiles of varying ethnic backgrounds. All four gospel writers locate Jesus’ ministry in mainly Jewish areas and Jesus predominately addresses Jewish people. As he remarks in our story today, he was sent to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ (verse 24) Jesus certainly concentrates his ministry on people of his own race and faith, but there is clear evidence in the gospels that there are times when he deliberately engages with those outside his own community, he reaches out people who do not have Abraham as a blood ancestor; those called by God from Egypt to the promised land.
As Jesus makes his way into this ‘alien’ territory, he does not need to initiate conversation with the locals. A Canaanite woman comes to him and starts shouting. (verse 22) In Mark’s account of the same incident, the woman is described as ‘Syrophoenician’. It seems that Matthew has deliberately called her a ‘Canaanite’ to evoke memories of the land of Canaan and the pagan nations displaced by the arrival of Israel in the promised land.
For a respectable Jewish male, this meeting would have been far from comfortable apart from the woman’s shouting. The first problem is gender, Jewish males did not engage with women who are not part of their family or circle of associates. Secondly, whatever the exact nature of her race, she was not a Jew. Thirdly, the nature of her daughter’s complaint would have implied further ‘uncleanness’. She describes her daughter as ‘being tormented by a demon.’ (verse 22) This could literally have been true. Jesus quite clearly identifies and exorcises demons from individuals during his ministry and the phenomenon is known today but rare. On the other hand, it may have been a form of mental illness as in this case we are told that the daughter is healed rather than a demon cast out at the end of the passage. (verse 28) In any case, a Gentile woman shouting out about a daughter with demons was not the kind of person that the disciples thought they should be spending time with. ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ they plead with Jesus. (verse 23)
It is probable that the disciples intend Jesus to grant her request then dismiss her quickly for it is to them that he speaks first. He tells them that he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel implying that he should work a miracle for her. The woman hears Jesus’ response but is not put off by it. Being composed, she kneels before Jesus and asks him to help her. (verse 25)
It is at this point that Jesus comes out with the apparently outrageous statement: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ (verse 26) There has been much debate about whether ‘dogs’ here refers to the street dogs which were regarded as scavenging pests or pet dogs for which there is evidence that some households kept. Whatever, it was an amazing put down on Jesus part implying that his ministry of wholeness healing and love was only good for Jewish people and not to be given to the ‘dogs’ that were other races.
But it is not the only time Jesus puts people down when we might think he would be encouraging. When the rich young man says that Jesus is ‘Good’ he does not affirm what was evidently true. ‘No one is good except God alone.’ Jesus responds (Mark 10.18) At the wedding feast at Canna when the wine runs out and his mother asks him to do something he responds: ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and me?’ (John 2.4) Is it not the case that Jesus’ great understanding of the human condition, knowing this woman’s heart, pushes her faith to the limit?
The truly remarkable words of this story are on the lips of the woman. She will not be put down or knocked back. She accepts that Jesus’ first call in his ministry is to his own people. She accepts her place as an unclean Gentile woman, a dog. With quick wit, she answers Jesus: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ (verse 27) Her faith is this: despite the perceptions of the world in which she lived, a world where Jew was favoured by God, so brutally portrayed in Jesus’ put down, there were ‘crumbs’ for her and all in her position. Jesus sees and recognises that faith: ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ (verse 28)
The way of faith, even faith in Jesus is not smooth or predictable. Christian faith is about a relationship which we share with the risen Jesus. A relationship is like a muscle in the body. It needs to be stretched and exercised if it is to remain healthy and effective. Jesus knows us very intimately just as he knew the Canaanite woman in the story. He knows how much our faith will stretch and bend to make it grow and become strong. His apparently harsh words provoke in her an amazing display of faith which is rewarded with her daughter’s return to health. Peter, a witness to this event expresses well this testing faith many years later well in his letter encouraging Christian believers at a time of persecution: ‘…even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith-being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire-may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.’ (1Peter 1.6-7)
But not only does this incident encourage our faith in tough times. It was vital in assuring the first Christians that the good news of Jesus was for everyone, not just Jews. Indeed, it is striking that while Jesus spent much time trying to convince his own ‘lost sheep’ that he was the Messiah, this dear woman already knew. She shouts: ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David;’ (verse 22) As Jesus remarks elsewhere, it seems there is more faith outside Israel than within. Sometimes people are found today with greater faith outside the church than within. May God, through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit help us to find those outside the church who want to recognise Jesus for who he really is and nurture them through love and wholesome words into his kingdom.
Trinity 10 20.08.2017