The Gospel for Sunday, August 20th, 2017: “The Caananite Woman’s Faith”
Reflection: Mercy Upon All
In today’s gospel Jesus heals a Gentile girl possessed by a demon at the request of her mother. This request is granted only after the woman persists in asking, even though Jesus seems to ignore her at first. As we seek guidance from this narrative, the lesson of persistence is clear and a common interpretation. The woman does not give up even though her first request does not bear fruit. Jesus rewards her patience, proclaiming, “O woman, great is your faith!” (28).
Even though I do not want to take for granted the usefulness of connecting faith and persistence, I think this story suggests there is more to be learned from the strange conversation between Jesus, the Caananite woman, and his disciples. My reading of scriptures right now is heavily influenced by the work new testament scholar N.T. Wright, who seeks to dispel limited notions of personal salvation in the scriptures in favor of a larger view that Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on Earth, where the power of sin and darkness are conquered and all people of faith—Jew and Gentile alike–are restored in the resurrection through Jesus Christ.
An interpretation of this gospel with this larger view in mind begins with the fact the woman is not a Jew. Despite her upbringing, she witnesses her belief by calling Jesus, “Lord, Son of David” (22). Whatever her understanding might have been of those words, the name acknowledges Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior. When Jesus does not respond, the reader, especially a first-century Jew, might jump to the conclusion that He is ignoring her because she is not Jewish. Indeed, that is probably what his disciples thought as they say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us” (23). I contend that Jesus waits to respond to draw out this discriminatory response from the disciples, rather than to merely test the woman’s perseverance in faith. If this episode is preparing the way for a Kingdom that includes Gentiles as well as Jews, Jesus needs to draw attention to the fact that his granting of her request will be based on faith alone, and that the new covenant will not be limited to the traditional understanding of Israel.
How does Jesus do that? The conversation that follows illustrates that disciples are characterized by faith, participation, and humility, as well as persistence, not by ethnic identification or religious law. Jesus describes His mission this way: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (24). On first glance this sounds exclusionary; He came to save Jews. However, Israel is the light to all nations who is characterized by their worship of God, instead of false idols. The woman’s answer shows she too is a sheep of Israel when she says with “homage,” “Lord, help me” (25). Her faith is marked by participation, by witness.
Jesus continues to use this conversation to draw out further how this Gentile is a worthy disciple by emphasizing her humility. He states a very conventional opinion about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles from the Jewish perspective. The Gentiles are “dogs,” not worthy of a place at the table of God’s chosen people; therefore, “It is not right to take the food of the children* and throw it to the dogs” (26). This is a setup so that woman may illustrate her faithfulness through humility. She responds, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” (27). Her answer is not demanding and prideful; she asks for no more than simple mercy from the Lord of all. Her words have served the purpose of illustrating Christian discipleship in the Kingdom of God. Once stated, Jesus praises her and heals her daughter.
This trial of the woman’s patience and faith is not just a personal test; it is a vehicle to reorient Jesus’ disciples to the new Kingdom that will include all of God’s people, not just Jews, and the conditions for discipleship. All have been marked by the power of sin so that all may be saved. This is what Paul means in the auxiliary reading when he says, “For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all” (Romans 11: 32).
I find this perspective challenging and exciting. I have often been inclined to see faith as being about my personal salvation and to read this episode as an exercise in persistence. However, it can be lonely and discouraging to focus on begging for one’s personal rescue. While God hears, he wants us to put ourselves third behind Him and others. By identifying with the awakening of the disciples in this gospel to the mission to reach all, both happiness and salvation will follow. It emphasizes the tremendous opportunity in this fallen world to participate in the Christ’s salvation mission. This gospel makes clear we are called to treat all people with love and mercy, especially those we don’t understand or who are difficult to love. In so doing we participate in the building of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth and live in hope of the day when loneliness and isolation no longer exist, only harmony in the love of God. It is radical notion that, once embraced, leads to happiness in this life and beyond.