The great faith of the Syro-Phoenician Woman
Matthew 15; 10-28:
10 Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand! 11 It is not what goes into your mouth that makes you ritually unclean; rather, what comes out of it makes you unclean.”12 Then the disciples came to him and said, “Do you know that the Pharisees had their feelings hurt by what you said?”13 “Every plant which my Father in heaven did not plant will be pulled up,” answered Jesus. 14 “Don't worry about them! They are blind leaders of the blind; and when one blind man leads another, both fall into a ditch.”15 Peter spoke up, “Explain this saying to us.”16 Jesus said to them, “You are still no more intelligent than the others. 17 Don't you understand? Anything that goes into your mouth goes into your stomach and then on out of your body. 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these are the things that make you ritually unclean. 19 For from your heart come the evil ideas which lead you to kill, commit adultery, and do other immoral things; to rob, lie, and slander others. 20 These are the things that make you unclean. But to eat without washing your hands as they say you should—this doesn't make you unclean.”
21 Jesus left that place and went off to the territory near the cities of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman who lived in that region came to him. “Son of David!” she cried out. “Have mercy on me, sir! My daughter has a demon and is in a terrible condition.”23 But Jesus did not say a word to her. His disciples came to him and begged him, “Send her away! She is following us and making all this noise!”24 Then Jesus replied, “I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.”25 At this the woman came and fell at his feet. “Help me, sir!” she said.26 Jesus answered, “It isn't right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”27 “That's true, sir,” she answered, “but even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from their masters' table.”28 So Jesus answered her, “You are a woman of great faith! What you want will be done for you.” And at that very moment her daughter was healed.
Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits thou hast given me,
for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
may I know thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly, day by day.
What is your faith based on, what is the centre of what you believe and trust in, who do you hold closest in your heart?
Last week we heard about Peter’s faith. Peter saw Jesus walking on the water and with what faith he had Peter jumped out of the boat and managed a few steps before the reality of the world around him made him doubt. As Peter is afraid of the wind and gives in to fear and he begins to sink. He calls out to Jesus 3 words, “Lord save me” and Jesus holds out his hand and catches him saying “Oh you of little faith why did you doubt?”
The disciples clearly still have a lot to learn.
So how do we learn to have faith?
Chris and I have just had a marvellous two week holiday travelling around the coast of Ireland in our campervan. We spent the last day at the beautiful little town of Ballybunion because I had spotted in the guide book that there were some fabulous sea caves that we could kayak into and explore. We had been a bit disappointed that the sea had been too calm to see any surf or dramatic waves. But that would be good for this kayaking trip because the caves were on the headland so any waves would be focused in and stronger there and that would make it a bit risky. There is a reason why our inflatable Kayak is called the Leaky Cauldron. So you’ve probably guessed that when we woke up the wind direction had changed there was a force 4 on shore wind whipping up beautiful waves which met all the needs of the Surf school gathering on the beach below the campervan. Great. But it was the last day. “Let’s just go and look” says Chris. It’s alright for him he is a much more experienced kayaker than me, he’s stronger than me and he has faith in his abilities. I don’t. We got the boat out kitted up and went and had a look. The swell was a lot stronger on the headland but I found I could cope with the swell. The waves weren’t breaking they just towered over us but we just rose and fell with them. Chris pointed out the leaky cauldron is a wide based boat, you could fill her with water and she would still float. And I remembered some of the physics taught to me when I was in Y9 “When a body is totally or partially immersed in a fluid it experiences an up thrust which is equal to the weight of fluid displaced” a particular string of words which I am never going to forget. We weren’t going to sink. So what about the caves? It was low tide so the huge waves were beginning to break just before the caves and then crash against the cliff there was white water moving in all directions. I was scared, I knew I couldn’t steer the kayak safely through them. Alone I would have been turned over by the waves and they would have thrown me onto the rocks. I wouldn’t have drowned, but I would be hurt and I could have lost my paddle and then been stranded. But I didn’t have to steer, I sit in the front of the boat, all I have to do is paddle, in fact I don’t always have to do that, Chris does the steering from the back. What I needed to do was have faith in Chris that he wouldn’t be taking me into something that was beyond his capability. If I gave into my fears, we would stay put go home safe and dry but disappointed. If I had faith in Chris’s kayaking I would get what I wanted and see inside the caves.
We went in, the waves crashed over the front of the boat in all directions, apparently you still need to paddle when you have a face full of water and salt in your eyes, but Chris was there with a stern rudder in place as we slid into the caves and they were superb.
Faith isn’t about knowing a set of rules or facts, faith is believing they are going to happen. I knew the physics of the situation, but I didn’t believe it would work and what came out of me was fear. I could only move forward when I believed in them and in Chris’s abilities; and in Chris’ love for me, knowing that he wouldn’t want me to be hurt, then what came out of me was faith and its rewards.
You can teach someone a set of rules or facts and they can learn them, a bit like filling an empty jug up with water. But educating someone is to draw out of them all that they know and believe and then build on it. Jesus is looking to educate his disciples. They have been filled up with knowledge of sets of rules, but what is coming out of them is doubt and fear. Because the cherry picked rules they have learnt might lead to religious-correctness but they don’t add up to Jesus. The rules they have learnt lead to division and hate, a set of religious rules which set them apart from the gentiles and set them as Jewish males apart from women and children, they are the chosen ones the elite. Yes they are the chosen ones, but chosen to bring redemption to the whole world, not to be set apart from the world. The rules they have been taught don’t add up to the commandments God gave; to love God and to love your neighbour. Paul explains in Galatians 5:6 what counts isn’t a rule based life of religious-correctness ‘but faith working through love’.
So in the first half of our gospel reading Jesus has been trying to explain this to the disciples, but talking isn’t enough, they need to see what he means. Someone said, don’t worry that your children don’t do as you say, worry that they are watching you all the time. Rob, our eldest, I think looks like me, but his facial expressions are Chris’ he has spent a lifetime watching his Dad so not surprisingly he behaves like his Dad, so much so that unconsciously his facial muscles work in exactly the same way as Chris’ so that I expect you would think he looks like Chris. The disciples will only really learn what faith working through love is by seeing, by Jesus showing them. And to do this he takes them out of the Jewish area of Israel to a gentile one, the district of Tyre And Sidon in neighbouring Phoenicia, where they meet a woman from the area. We don’t know her name but she is my all-time favourite bible character. Mark calls her the Syro-phoenician woman indicating where she came from; Matthew describes her as a Canaanite woman reminding us that she comes from a race that the Israelite nation had spent their formative years fighting against. What has gone into the disciples about this woman is based on historical hatred and religious rules she is not welcome, she certainly isn’t one of the lost sheep of Israel. But she clearly knows who Jesus is and she is not going to give in to prejudice, she trusts him completely. How does she know about him? Possibly because others have heard about him and told her Mark ch3: 7-8 tells us about people coming to Jesus from Tyre and Sidon. We don’t know if she was rich or poor, educated or uneducated but she is prepared to humble herself and use the cry of the beggar “have mercy on me , lord”. It is her daughter who is ill with a demon, but she says have mercy on ME. She is the one in desperate need; she is carrying the needs of her child. This is what love looks like. Michelle Obama once quoted a well-known saying, a mother can only be as happy as her least happy child. If the same is true for Father’s then tell me later, but as a mother I know this is true, the depth of my love for my children means what my child is feeling, I feel If my child suffers, I suffer. They may have cut the cord but we are still connected and this depth of love is what drives this mother to Jesus knowing she is going to face insults and abuse. She knows Jesus will respond to her because she has caught something about him. She adds to her cry the messianic title she call out have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. Then she tells Jesus her problem my daughter has a demon and waits.
But Jesus cold shoulders her, ignoring her he says nothing. In our Western individualistic world we could be shocked, how can he ignore her? Isn’t he supposed to be full of love and compassion, how does this sit with what he has just said to the disciples about what comes out of a person?
To understand what happens next we need to put down our 21 Century western view and see the scene through Middle Eastern eyes. And trust the woman, because she is not put off. Jesus is not alone with her, then as now in most places of the world events happened in community. African theologians will tell you ‘I am because we are’. If you look at the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:20 ‘Lazarus used to be brought’- someone must have been doing the bringing there are other people around, there is a community involved. Jesus is not just dealing with the woman; he is in a double interaction with his disciples and he is being watched by the crowd.
At Greenbelt last year I slipped into a talk given by a Syrian about this passage, I shouldn’t have done, we were on the way back to the campsite for dinner, but as I said she is my favourite she was worth risking losing my dinner over. When he had finished rejoicing over the fact that in Bible times all of the area, Israel, Judah, Phoenicia and Syria were all referred to as Syria. He described some of the culture of the time. In those days when a man married he brought his wife home to live with his mother, what could possibly go wrong? So you have an older woman trying to explain ways of doing things to a younger woman. Generally the mother-in-law would find her new daughter-in-law wouldn’t listen to her, so the women devised a way of doing things. The mother-in-law would talk to her neighbour. If there was something she wanted her daughter-in-law to know she would tell it to her neighbour. Maybe it would work something like this.
‘Oh Susanna, do you remember that time when I was convinced you should put a whole garlic in the stew instead of just one clove.’
‘Oh yes, Elizabeth,’ comes the reply ‘and no one was able to eat it and you had to throw it out for the animals’
‘and my husband made such a scene over the waste everyone came out to see what he was shouting about.’
And the two older women would laugh over the memory while the daughter-in-law slipped back into house and adjusted her cooking.
Susanna knows perfectly well that Elizabeth has always known what a clove of garlic is, and it is the daughter-in-law with the problem, in fact the whole story is probably made up for the purpose. But the two women are able to work together through the story to get the girl to pick up their ways without a head on confrontation.
He referred to it as “Talk to the neighbour and the daughter-in-law is listening”. It was a game that worked and kept the peace and sanity of the older women and possibly their humour, and the dignity of the younger. Maybe Jesus had seen it happen in his own family.
This is what Jesus is doing with the woman and she recognises it and plays along.
In first Century Israel Rabbis didn’t talk with women in public, not even members of their own family. So Jesus doesn’t speak to her, he shuts her out, just as the disciples would have wanted and they ask should they send her away. Jesus’ replies to them “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” Well that is what the disciples believe. He is saying to the woman in cultural language she would understand, this is what they think, now help me changed their understanding. Tell them why I should help a gentile woman like you. Would she catch the hint?
So she comes and kneels in front of him she believes Jesus doesn’t mean it. Her faith in Jesus is that he will see her need and heal her daughter. Her reaction to what we might see as rejection was to come and kneel at Jesus’ feet and work with him, so ask in three simple words, so similar to those of Peter’s cry in the sea “Lord save me”. She simply says “Lord help me” Did they strike a chord with Peter?
The disciples should have known the story of Elijah and the Gentile Widow at Zarephath the classic prophet’s concern for the widow and the orphan, a great story which had set the precedent, what will Jesus do?
The next part of the scene can feel uncomfortable for us. Jesus is insults the woman, there is not getting away from it. Dog’s a derogatory term nearly as bad a pigs, to neglect a beggar was one thing to insult her publicly was something else. Why would Jesus do it? So the disciples could see where their prejudice and bias led to. Jesus is saying, are you comfortable with this scene? If you aren’t then change your thinking.
And now the woman needs to respond, does she return insult for insult. She appears to have been totally humiliated. Does she give in to fears that she is being rejected and go home disappointed. No she uses her wits and holds onto her confidence in her faith that Jesus has come to redeem all. If Jesus is love then she knows he won’t have insulted her he has her best interests at heart he must be trying to do something else, therefore she refuses to accept the insult as an insult to her and works with him, she uses her sense of humour and her intelligence to answer Jesus with a “Talk to the neighbour so the disciples will understand attitude” and says
“Yes but… the unwanted crumbs are all I need”. She is superb. Women were considered intellectually inferior to men, yet here she is bantering with Jesus and winning her case in a way which he cannot refuse and teaches the disciples what Jesus means by love.
Trusting that Jesus has her best interests at heart and waiting for him to steer the conversation into the healing that she so needs. The exclamation mark in verse 28 means so much to me. There is such a charge of emotion as Jesus and the woman express their joy in achieving what they had set out to do. Leaving the disciples trying to work out what happened. Of course Jesus heals her daughter and meets her needs just as she has asked, but what he applauds is her total unquestioning faith in him. In effect he says to the disciples, if you want to walk on water, you Jewish men need to have faith like this gentile woman, she is your example to follow this is what Great faith looks like.
This is the faith that Jesus has in Gethsemane when he knows he is going to have to face insults and rejection in order to work with God. And yes the disciples did listen and watch and change. When we read Acts we see how they too were counter cultural in their acceptance of women and gentiles and in their willingness to accept insults and rejection in faith as they worked with God to spread the word of the Kingdom.
How far are we prepared to go to have total faith that in all things Jesus has our best interests at heart, how far will we humble ourselves to work with him, trusting that he will work for our good in bringing his kingdom to the people of Stannington and the world. How far do we dare trust each other, do we trust that we love each other and have each other’s best interests at heart so we can work co-operatively together how great is our faith in our friendships and fellowships that we assume the best in what others say and so that we visible work co-operatively together.
We can do it when we centre ourselves on Jesus, when we spend so much time watching him through our prayer life, through reading the Bible that we begin to become like him, so that people will begin to recognise Christ in us, as individuals and collectively as a church.