Sunday 16 August 2020
This morning’s gospel reading provides us with a very complex task of interpretation. The story we are told is complex in itself and it contains images that we sometimes struggle to associate with Jesus of Nazareth as we know him from the rest of the gopsels. The incident is also recounted in Mark’s gospel and, although there are some differences between the two, those elements that give rise to greatest puzzlement are still present.
The incident is clearly located in Gentile territory. We are told that Jesus travelled to the district of Tyre and Sidon. These two cities were coastal ports about 20 kilometres apart located within the boundaries of modern day Lebanon. Given his remark later in the incident that he was “sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, it would appear that his trip to this area is in order to have a break from the normal course of his life.
The woman who comes and shouts at him we are told is a Canaanite. That means that she was what we would call a pagan. Specifically, she would have worshipped the nature gods of Baal. The history of the people of Israel is a tale of constant infidelity to Yahweh and turning to the Canaanite gods of Baal in the hope that they might deliver more harvests.
Clearly this woman could hardly be expected to know very much about the religion of the Israelites. And yet, she uses a very Jewish form of address to gain Jesus’ attention. She shouts: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” The term “Son of David” is what we would call a messianic term. The Messiah the Jews expected was to be a new king in the line of David. This makes this woman’s understanding of who Jesus is a matter of great curiosity to us.
The second thing that we note is that she is asking for mercy for herself. It turns out that the reason for her distress is her daughter’s condition, and yet she asks mercy for herself. We might wonder whether there is more at stake here than the pain of a mother for the distress of her child. What is the pain that she carries that is hers alone?
In any case, we the readers are a little dismayed at what seems to be Jesus’ off-hand response to this woman and her predicament. In the first instance, he ignores her altogether. In some ways, that was a perfectly acceptable response on the part of a Jewish man to a gentile woman in a public situation during those times.
But, we are left a little uncomfortable, because it is not what we expect from Jesus. However, the disciples’ suggestion that Jesus send her away does not surprise us too much. They have form! But not so Jesus.
Then Jesus explains himself. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” To whom did he say this? It is not entirely clear. Was he speaking to the disciples or to the woman? Regardless, the woman is persistent and came and knelt before him saying: “Lord, help me.”
This action raises the stakes dramatically. Think about her action for a moment. Have you ever been in such great need that you have prostrated yourself in front of someone and begged of them? Have you ever had anyone do it to you? I can’t recall either in my own case, but I think that if it happened, I would be bowled over by the pathos of the situation.
And yet, Jesus apparently is still not moved to intercede for her. In fact, what he says to her sounds very much like an insult. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It sounds like it might have been a common saying from those days. Even so, when directed at a person from another ethnic group, it does begin to sound like an insult. The Greek word that is translated “dogs” is better translated as “puppies”. That takes a little off the edge of what Jesus has said.
However, the woman’s response is respectful and a little comical which suggests that Jesus initial statement may have been delivered with a smile as if he was applying a common saying out of context and he and the woman knew it. Her willingness to go along with Jesus and claim in an amusing way the attention she sought seems to be what changes Jesus’ mind on the matter.
So much so that he reverses his thinking from what it had been at the start of the encounter and grants the woman’s wish. Accordingly, we are told that the daughter was healed instantly with no apparent contact with Jesus in person. All rested upon the faith and perseverance of the mother, this gentile woman who had the courage to approach this Jewish prophet who she could see to be the fulfilment of the hope of the people of whom she was not a part.
As I suggested at the beginning, this event is very difficult to interpret and is full of internal complexity. The one thing we can be very sure of is that it did happen, because it would not be something that an evangelist would make up about Jesus.
The passage deserves much prayerful reflection and I encourage you to do that during the week. As you do that, I would suggest that one aspect that you might consider is Jesus’ apparent willingness to change in response to the faith and perseverance of the Canaanite woman.
I don’t think he was playacting, as some commentators suggest, in order to evoke the right response from the woman. I think it seems pretty clear that, before Jesus encountered this woman, he did not think that his ministry was meant to extend beyond his own people, the Jews. I think that this woman brought about a quantum change in his self-understanding.
If we are to accept that Jesus is truly God and truly man as we proclaim in the Nicene Creed, we have to accept that he grew in his ministry. It was not something that he just had. As he travelled around Galilee and Judah – and as we see today, into gentile country from time to time, Jesus grew in his insight into what it was he was being called to do by God in terms of proclaiming the kingdom.
That means that he went through processes of personal change and growth. Today we read of one such significant process of change through the unexpected agency of a gentile woman who led him to see that his ministry was greater than he had previously understood it.
And of course, if Jesus was open to change and growth in understanding of his vocation from God, so ought we be. We don’t need to be afraid of change. Rather we should be open to it and embrace it, even when it is prompted within us by unlikely people and events. Being open to change and growth in our individual ministries and vocations is being true to our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, who was surprised to be changed by a chance encounter with a gentile woman in a foreign country when he was actually looking for a place to take a break.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen