Now here’s a disturbing story. Jesus encounters a Gentile, called Syrophoenician in the gospel of Mark, a Canaanite here in Matthew, whose daughter is in need of healing. The woman keeps on entreating Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,” indicating she clearly understands that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the scriptures. Instead of helping her, Jesus at first ignores her, then lets her know he did not come to be the Messiah for people like her. This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know, does it? What’s going on here?
A couple of things to note. First, the gospel of Mark has it right in terms of identifying her nationality. In Jesus’ time, Gentiles from this area were known as Syrophoenicians. The term “Canaanite” had not been used for centuries. It would be like describing a person from Great Britain as an Anglo Saxon, or a Celt, terms long since obsolete. But the word “Canaanite” has theological overtones. The Canaanites were those who lived in the Promised Land prior to the arrival of the Israelites. The Canaanites worshipped idols and thus were a threat to God’s people, whose first commandment ordered them “You shall have no other gods.” Canaanites were considered the enemies of God’s people, indeed, the enemies of God. To call this woman a Canaanite is make her a total outsider, unworthy of God’s grace.
The disciples want to send her away. It is interesting that Jesus does not do that. First, he is silent. Then he says that he listens to prayers, but only to Jewish prayers, not to the prayers of one such as her. Sounds harsh, but then, I’ve been there. I’ve prayed and encountered the silence of God. I’ve found my prayer requests ignored, even as I’ve seen signs that the prayers of others are being heard and answered. What is intriguing about this woman is that she will not take “no” for an answer. She hangs on in faith, knowing that her only hope is in the one who is “Lord,” and “Son of David.” And Jesus cites her faith as the reason for finally granting her request.
Not long after this, the disciples will be confronted by the question of what to do when Gentiles, even those they had thought were enemies of God, exhibit such faith. The conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10 was one of those times. Cornelius was a Centurion, an enforcer of the Empire, one who clearly could be seen as an enemy of God’s people, even an enemy of God. But upon hearing Peter’s preaching, the Holy Spirit grants him a faith that is undeniable. What were the faithful, Jewish disciples of Jesus to do when confronted with the faith of a Gentile, one they thought was an enemy of God? In Acts 15, they decided that faith was the sign that the Spirit had reached that enemy and made them a friend. I think the disciples looked back on what happened to the woman from this story and recognized that faith, not past works or affiliations or nationalities, made one right with God. When Cornelius exhibited such faith, he was welcome as a member of God’s people.
There is a danger in this text. Often, this Bible passage has been used to say to people that if they had enough faith, they would get the answers they want to the prayers they make. Many have wondered if a spouse, child, parent, or other loved one died because they did not have enough faith in their prayers. I would counter that there is another story in the gospel of Matthew about one with great faith who prayed and did not receive what he requested. Jesus prayed, “Let this cup pass from me,” but did not receive what he requested. He, like the woman, experienced the silence of God when he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He became, like the woman, the total outsider, and was considered the enemy of God when the sins of the world were laid upon him. Yet, despite God’s silence, despite the negative response to Christ’s prayer, God was powerfully at work in the death of Jesus, bringing about the forgiveness of sins which leads to the reconciliation of the world. God was powerfully at work in the death of Jesus, in ways that were hidden to the human eye, just as God was at work in this story of the “Canaanite” woman, in ways we often find hard to understand.
To our preachers, what will you preach about this Sunday? To those of you who do not preach, what do you take from this lesson? Feel free to leave your comments below.