20th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle A
14th August 2011.
Matthew 15: 21-28
Rev Tony van Vuuren
Today we hear about one of the truly magnificent women of the Gospel. She is a Canaanite – and she has one goal: the healing of her daughter tormented by a demon. This Gospel account also contains one of the most memorable verbal duels recorded in the four Gospels. First of all though, it is important to note that Jesus is speaking here to a woman, something rabbis back in those days did not do in public. Not only that, but she is a foreigner, she is a descendant of the ancient Canaanite tribe; ancestral enemies of the Jews. Matthew, with his strong Jewish roots, stresses her paganism by calling her by the derogatory term of Canaanite; though Mark, in his Gospel, refers to her as a Syro-Phoenician.
What is Jesus doing “in the region of Tyre and Sidon” in the first place? It’s pagan country and it’s the first time that He has ventured out of Jewish territory. Remember when he was among his own people he met opposition; and so He may be getting away for rest or be taking a break from all the conflict He has been facing. Ironically, now, among so called non-believers he hears a distressed mother call him by the title he might have hoped to have heard from his own people, “Son of David.”
She pleads her case with him; “Lord Help me!” The disciples want to send her away and even Jesus at first seems to brush her aside; and then he says; “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.” This is a harsh sounding response coming from Jesus but, he is simply using a form of the derogatory stereotype used by Jews of Gentiles; Gentile Dogs. We should note though that Jesus uses the term “house-dogs”, which can be translated as “pet pups”; but even if we reduce the sting of his response to her, Jesus is still saying that salvation is to come to the Jews first. His response is a test of her faith. The woman shows no resentment and extends Jesus’ metaphor into a Gentile context, saying that,” even the pups get the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”
We have come to accept that Jesus has the last word in every single verbal confrontation in Scripture. Whenever he is called onto the carpet and confronted by Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, elders, lawyers, or even Pilate himself, Jesus seems to get the upper hand when it comes to a contest of words (plucking wheat, taxes, woman caught in the act of adultery, healings on Sabbath, It is you who say that I am, etc.) The opposition is always crippled by their motivations. They wish to engage in dialogue with Jesus in order to threaten, to shame, to convict, to mock and to overthrow him.
What makes this woman different — the only person in Scripture to seemingly get one-up on Jesus — is that fact that her motivations are pure and selfless.
Pagan she might be, but in her heart there is love for her child. It is this love that makes her approach a Jewish Rabbi; it is love that makes her suffer the apparent rebuff, and love makes her recognise Jesus’ compassion.
She has faith that grows in contact with Jesus. She begins with a request and ends in prayer.
She has perseverance; Jesus is not just a possible helper; He is her only hope; she refuses to be discouraged and is not prepared to take no for an answer.
She has good cheer; despite her trouble we can also imagine her smile as she answers Jesus about the scraps. God loves the cheerful faith; faith in whose eyes there is always the light of hope; faith with a smile that can light up a room.
She searches for a way to keep Jesus engaged in conversation by introducing the great comeback line – “even the house-dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table”. She does not wish to test, to try, or threaten Jesus. She simply wants her daughter healed; and the longer she can keep Jesus engaged in repartee the more of a chance she feels that she will get what she wants.
In the end, Jesus gives her what she asks. Her perseverance, her selflessness, her love and faith, and her cleverness are responded to by Jesus.
We have no scriptural account of Jesus laughing, however, if we had to choose a story in which to insert such laughter this is the story we might choose. A surprised smile would lead to a hearty laugh and as Jesus throws his head back he would half laugh and half speak the words – “Woman, you have great faith!”
At its heart, this is a story of a mother with a terribly distressed child. Who knows what strange behaviour the child was manifesting? But we don’t have to look far to be able to name a father, mother or grandparent suffering because of a child. Notice the mother’s request, “HELP ME…” —-such is the suffering a parent takes on when a child is distressed. Indeed, the parent would rather suffer in place of the child and is indeed suffering at least as much as the child.
Some children seemingly change overnight and exhibit clear signs of torment—from drugs, alcohol, sexual addiction, abuse, rebellion, etc. They show “possessed behaviour”: turning on parents, family, friends and teachers; becoming violent, drifting, turbulent, and troublesome at school; associating with a new and rough element; becoming indifferent in class and rejecting activities they once loved. What a torment for those who love them! Most often, even before we pray for ourselves, we offer desperate prayers for these children we love so much and can’t seem to help. How many parents, desperate to help their children, like the Canaanite woman, have accompanied them to talk to teachers, or sit hours with them in the company of counsellors and therapists to calm their troubled and tormented spirits?
All the while, voicing in these or other words, this Canaanite mother’s prayer, “Help me, Lord, Son of David. My child is tormented.”
This Gospel account gives us another lesson about prayer and the gift of faith, and about the cooperation of God in our lives.
The woman recognizes Jesus as someone who can indeed heal.
The woman asks for mercy.
The woman selflessly intercedes for her daughter whom she loves.
The woman is persistent in her request.
A response is made to the woman.
These are simple actions — recognition of divine power, a plea for mercy, a request for help, persistence in that request, and a response.
If someone has stopped praying and needs a jump-start, this might be a good weekend to remind that person of the importance and necessity of prayer — and not only of prayer, but of persistent prayer.
Is it that God does not hear us the first time? No. Is it that God wants to toy with us and make us beg for what we want? No. Rather, it has to do with the ways of God, which are so above our ways that we cannot comprehend all of the movements of His will in and around our lives. Our job is to remain within our ways, within our human ways of thinking and understanding and to simply ask for what we need, to persevere in that request, and to wait for a response from God.