This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Matthew 15: 21-28
A gentile’s faith in Jesus
21-22 Jesus left that place and retired into the Tyre and Sidon district. There a Canaanite woman from those parts came to him crying at the top of her voice, “Lord, have pity on me! My daughter is in a terrible state—a devil has got into her!”
23 Jesus made no answer, and the disciples came up to him and said, “Do send her away—she’s still following us and calling out.”
24 “I was only sent,” replied Jesus, “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25 Then the woman came and knelt at his feet. “Lord, help me,” she said.
26 “It is not right, you know,” Jesus replied, “to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes, Lord, I know, but even the dogs live on the scraps that fall from their master’s table!”
28 “You certainly don’t lack faith,” returned Jesus, “it shall be as you wish.” And at that moment her daughter was cured.
Matthew 15: 21-28
The Canaanite Woman’s Faith
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.’ 23 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.’ 24 He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26 He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27 She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28 Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
I’ve printed two translations so that readers can see how different they are. J. B. Phillips is a great translator but here he’s simply careless and uses a kind of middle class casual speech that’s entirely wrong: “in a terrible state”, “Do send her away” “It’s not right, you know,” “You certainly don’t lack faith” as if the Bible characters came from a Cotswold village!
The original Greek, which is much more sober and harsh, is better represented by the NRSV tranlsation. Matthew’s own story is a re-writing of what he found in Mark’s gospel (7:24ff) which is even blunter in language.
The story is unique because it shows us something that must have happened all the time: Jesus learning from another person. Of course he must have done so but a wrong kind of piety or theological reserve has prevented the tradition from recognsing this. For example, most commentators say that Jesus was just testing the woman’s faith, rather than expressing a religious prejudice.
The story tells us that Jesus was visiting a gentile region, so he and his disciples are the strangers. The woman persists in the face of four put-downs: Jesus’ silence; the request of his disciples to send her away; Jesus’ words about his ministry being restricted to Israel; and finally his brutal words about children’s food not being given to dogs. She shows her faith by calling Jesus “Son of David(=Messiah), by following him, and by kneeling to make her request. Most of all however, she uses her mother wit to take on the role of a “dog under the table” simultaneously mocking and accepting his prejudice. Matthew makes one crucial change in her words from the version in Mark where she says “the children’s table”; now she says “the master’s table.” which is the same Greek as the “Lord’s table”. In this way Matthew smuggles into the story a reference to the sacramental meal at which Jews and Gentiles sit together.
In Matthew’s version the woman reminds Jesus of what he knows: that neither faith nor God’s compassion respects ethnic barriers. If we want to talk of testing we might say that Jesus and the woman are testing each other’s faith: Jesus insisting that she see him as a Jew; she insisting that Jesus see her daughter as a child of God. In the end the woman shows she respects his Jewishness and he shows he respects her daughters’ human need.
Did you think Jesus’ never had to learn anything because he was Son of God? Was he able to walk, speak and count from birth? Surely not. His unity with God does not mean he’s Superman, but rather that he remains open to learning all that God offers him. Amongst other things he learned the Jewish scriptures and religious traditions, interpreting them with authority. Here he is reminded that trust in God is not limited to his own people and that God’s compassion is for all his children.
The mistake, that Jesus never needed to learn, is not a trivial one. When believers think that Jesus didn’t need to learn, they may think that, in matters of faith, they have nothing to learn either, because they have all the answers. This encourages dogmatism and prejudice, especially towards people whose beliefs are different. There are Taliban Muslims in Asia and there are Taliban Christians thoughout the world. None of them are much help to God.
Jesus’ perfection is that he was perfectly willing to learn.