Matthew 15:21-28 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (NRSV)
There is something in this story that make me go “hmm.” (Maybe more than that, but only one that I am going to talk about today…)
Jesus had already recognized non-Jews were sometimes more faithful than those who were ethnic Jews so why did he need this teachable moment? When the Centurion (a Roman soldier) came to him to have Jesus heal his servant back in Matthew 8, Jesus was ready to go to his house to do it, but the Centurion said he was not worthy to have Jesus come to his house. At the end of the conversation, Jesus marveled at this man and said, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:10b-12, NRSV) It was a critique of the Pharisees and their ilk who thought they knew everything about God’s will and held all authority to speak for God in their time.
As I have said before, there are no ‘throw-away’ images in the gospels. All the crumbs are significant. We just have to figure out know enough to pick them up and ‘eat’ them, to get the spiritual nutrition they have to offer. In Matthew, as in the other gospels, the stories build on one another, providing counterpoint for the interpretation of the stories before and after it. It is wise to always keep that in mind. Matthew doubles back within the gospel as well as quotes Old Testament writings to show continuity with Jesus’ teachings to God’s truth that has been revealed from of old.
Both the Centurion and the Canaanite woman came to Jesus with concern for one of their young charges. In the end, both of them were commended for their great faith. These two stories are definitely connected.
The Greek word used to describe this person in the Centurion story is “pais” which can mean either “servant” or “child” (I do not know why the translators chose to identify this person as a servant rather than as the child of the Centurion. Maybe I can research that for another day, but it definitely says something about how children were seen in that society. But again, that is a topic for another day.) as opposed to the more common word for slave/servant “duolos.” In either case, neither a servant/slave (of any age) nor a child could, in Jesus’ day, speak for themselves. Both of these non-Jews came to Jesus risking rejection. They, being members of the society of the day, would have known that a Jew would not enter the house of a gentile and that a rabbi wouldn’t necessarily answer a woman, especially a gentile woman. We, knowing the rest of the story, know that neither were at risk for rejection by Jesus, but they could not have known, and certainly the people in Matthew’s intended audience would not have known. Matthew’s audience would have gasped at the behavior of both of these people.
The difference between these two characters: male and female, one with authority and one with no authority whatsoever, is part of the significance. Jesus, time after time in Matthew, is willing to defile himself (here with a gentile but with lepers, sinners, tax collectors) for the benefit of the other. Jesus responded immediately to the Centurion and was willing to go to the Centurion’s home, which would have made him unclean. That is interesting enough, but there is another very interesting dynamic here. The Centurion had the authority of Rome to order anyone around, not just his soldiers or his servants. The Jews of Jesus’ day would have consistently endured situations where they would be expected to obey the occupying authorities. If the Centurion says “Go.” you had better go. If he had wanted, he could have ordered Jesus to come to his aid, but he didn’t. So in that story, the authority of the person with great faith would have been part of the message. Authority isn’t the power. Faith is.
In the story we have today, the LACK of authority of the person making the request is glaringly obvious and Jesus makes it more obvious by ignoring her in the beginning. She is a gentile of no authority in an outlying region; a place of no authority. Jesus is usually fair and positive toward women, but as fully human, he would have been, in some way, a product of his era. I am convinced she had something to teach him about authority and faith, because ultimately, Jesus responds to her faith. That matters. Her faith won out over her lack of authority. Faith, and our response to it, has to be independent of the authority of the person who shows it. Worldly authority is useful for our outward realm alone. In the community of the church, the station of the person has to be irrelevant. The faith of the persons involved is the only thing that counts.
In our daily lives, it is worth taking a step back and looking at how we operate. Do we use our station in life to get things done? Or do we use our faith. There is a place for us to use our earthly powers, but probably not as many places as we actually try to use it. What would happen if we used our station in life less and our faith more? What parts of our lives would be healed if we did so?
It’s something to think about.
blessings to you,
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.