"Woman, You Have Great Faith!"
Matthew 15: 21 — 28
After the incident of Peter walking on the water, the disciples accompanied Jesus across the lake to Gennesaret. The trip began well, with a warm reception. However, following the arrival of the scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem, things took a turn for the worse as Jesus tried to present the spiritual understanding behind religious laws. He found it hard going. Finally he decided to move North and leave his quarrelsome and self-righteous critics to themselves. It was not long before he met what he was looking for! And on the border of a foreign country at that!
Some Notes On the Text
Approaching the border, Jesus left his familiar surroundings and was in the vicinity of Southern Phoenicia, or what, today, we call Lebanon. This was the only time during his ministry he may have left the land of his birth, and this was brought about by his desire to avoid constant opposition. Perhaps, also, it was to have some quality time with his disciples, to whose formation he paid the closest attention.
A Canaanite woman (also referred to as a Phoenician or Syro-Phoenician woman) from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession".
The text indicates she kept on calling out, and the terms she used illustrate a fairly sophisticated awareness of what the Jews expected of their Messiah, and some recognition that he might be it!
Jesus did not answer a word. The disciples took this as a sign they could press him to do what she asked and get rid of her, for fear she would drive them mad. After all they came here for peace and quiet!
After a time, having chosen not to follow the suggestions of the disciples, Jesus then answers the woman in a way she never expected. His comment sparks off one of the most intriguing dialogues recorded in all scripture.
Jesus makes a surprising comment, possibly only within the hearing of the disciples:
"I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."
In other words, my calling and mission is to the nation of Israel which is wandering in a spiritual wilderness.
That is not exactly what the disciples expected to hear!
The Phoenician woman now takes her turn to shock the disciples. She comes closer to Jesus and kneels down to pay her respects to one she knows as a wise, kind, compassionate and holy rabbi.
Brushing aside all protocol in her state of complete desperation, she simply pleads,
"Lord help me!"
This is a tender moment. At great risk to her own reputation, but urged on by the pitiful plight of her daughter, and with nowhere else to go, she places before him every bit of hope she dares to manifest.
At this point, the "wise, kind, compassionate and holy rabbi" she so much admires, makes what appears to be the most arrogant, self-righteous, atrocious and insolent statement that he was ever heard to utter:
"It is not right to take the children's bread
Even the disciples are stunned, and keep well out of it. They understand perfectly well what Jesus was saying, as the attitude was well known within Judaism.
The reasoning implied goes:
Shocking as this appears to us, the woman takes no offence whatsoever, and is not the least bit taken aback. Our Lord's statement stops us in our tracks, but it didn't stop her. Why?
We need to understand that Jesus has stated an intellectual position very common among a certain group of rabbis: not all, by any means, but a significant group, just the same. In his manner and delivery he has invited the woman to engage in a typically near East type of witty debate. It is a dual of wit, not a theological debate. Those who enter into it have already received from each other clear signals of good will and appropriate respect. The question becomes how will this woman reply to the obnoxious and contemptuous insult?
Recognising that Jesus has objected strongly to the injustice of taking the "children's bread" (i.e. the heritage of the Jews) and tossing it at their "dogs" (i.e. the non-Jews, the pagans, the gentiles), the woman, without any delay whatsoever says:
"Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs
The Greek text suggests there was a slight pause. The rabbi's challenge has been matched, to say the least!
The retort put forward by the woman contains all the signs of a highly intelligent person, though of humble status and frame of mind, who will not put up with any nonsense!
Her implied response contained the following elements:
If the disciples were stunned at the statement by Jesus, they are completely "blown away" by the reply of the woman.
Confronted by a seemingly impenetrable and impassable wall she unflinchingly pressed forward with her faith, and she let him hear it in humble, yet, no uncertain terms!
Before such resistance, the barrier put up by Jesus crumbles at once, and when the dust settles, he pays her the greatest tribute ever made to a human being:
"Woman, you have great faith!
Only the compliment paid to the Roman Centurion approached that given on this occasion.
To many of us, reading this today, the tribute paid by Jesus to the non-Jewish woman: "You have great faith," does not seem especially remarkable. This is due to what is often lost in translation from a language as used 2000 years ago into contemporary English.
In the previous text for our meditation, Matthew 14: 22 — 30 (Jesus walking on the lake), Peter was shown how his faith was not equal to the challenge before him. In contrast, in the current reading, the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman is undaunted by the greatest barrier Jesus can put in place between them. Yet, in no time it disintegrates before her, and when our Lord acknowledges this fact to her, the request for her daughter's healing is granted instantly.
The Lesson on faith, for the disciples is now complete.
We close with a comment from a Sunday sermon of St John Chrysostom (AD 347 - 407), Bishop of Constantinople during the height of Christian culture in that place. Though written, and translated, in a style we may find a little unfamiliar, it is worth reading slowly several times; for in these lines are contained some understandings of God's way with humanity which led to many souls entering the Church in the 4th and 5th centuries. We could profit from reflecting on how the Church in St John Chrysostom's day confronted the vast pagan world fearlessly and with indomitable faith. It might help us as we try to do the same.
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