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A Woman of Great Faith

This week we have one of the most uncomfortable stories about Jesus where he ignores then appears to reject the Canaanite woman. And then Jesus names her as a woman of great faith! (Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 15 [20] Matthew 15:21-28; Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; and Romans 11:29-32) What is happening? And what does it mean for us? We need to take a deep breath and wade into the text and unravel it.

You may like to read what I previously wrote focusing on the Genesis story of Joseph.

As always context is important, including the other readings the lectionary writers point us towards. The prophet Isaiah said: ‘Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’ It would seem that it has always been the ultimate intention of God to gather up all the peoples of God’s good creation, not only those designated for a time as the chosen ones. And then we have this convoluted exegesis by Paul in his labored argument that God has hardened the hearts of the chosen ones for a time so that the Gentiles might be admitted. (But that we, the Gentile converts, should not have an inflated view of ourselves as we are only a wild olive grafted on to the tree of life).

And then out of the mouth of Jesus we hear “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying. “Lord, help me.” Jesus 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.”

I think a lot is going on in this reading including some of the things you have probably heard before to “soften” these harsh words. Some have suggested that the word used means little dog or puppy, as though that deals with the issue of calling someone a dog! It has also been suggested that Jesus was testing her to make sure that she really wanted and believed in the possibility of healing. And that he was role modelling to his disciples how to move from exclusion to inclusion. But even with these possibilities in mind the words are harsh. So what might going on?

Matthew’s gospel appears to have been written for a primarily Jewish audience and compared with other gospels there is an emphasis on the ministry to the Jewish people, as we have noted before. This is a turning point from a focus almost entirely with the house of Israel towards the position that the gospel proclaims at the end with the great commissioning to the ends of the earth. Jesus is in borderline territory as the setting for this story and the woman is referred to as a Canaanite or indigenous woman of the area. Her people had been overthrown by the Hebrew people, or the house of Israel, centuries before and she calls him Son of David acknowledging their people’s history. She is "other". I think we also need to accept that as a fully human person Jesus was feeling the stretch of accepting the inclusion of someone he initially saw as “other”. The repartee between them made a difference to Jesus as well as to the woman. He seems to have been stretched to include as fully human and worthy of healing someone who is well outside the house of Israel.

I think also that the repartee, the argument, strengthened the woman’s resolve and increased her boldness and desire for healing, for reconciliation, for the salvation of her daughter. Any of us who have loved someone who is desperately ill will know what strong advocates we can become. An old Zen master is said to have despaired for one of his students, who although very smart was not able to achieve enlightenment. When all else had failed the master pushed the students head under the water of a stream they were mediating beside. At first the student did not resist trusting that it was a lesson. But after a few minutes he struggled free and gasping demanded what his master was doing. “Until you want enlightenment as much as you just wanted air you will not find it.” Sometimes we need to be desperately and passionately clear about our desire for healing and reconciliation before we can receive. As western Christians we tend to be rather mild and polite. So maybe this is what was also happening in this interaction between Jesus and the foreign woman.

So how do we hold the tension in a holy and healing way between the divisions in our world and out desire for union, separation and unity, difference and communion? I want to suggest that there is a theme that is seen throughout Scripture and human history and nature in ways subtle and not so subtle. Mystics and scientists, alchemists and quantum physicists, sociologists and dream analysts describe it in different ways. I don’t want to overstate it – this theme is not all that is happening by any means and does not explain away difficulty and suffering but it does explore the thread of so much of the troubling news we experience in our family, community, denomination and the larger world and in Scripture. Bear with me!

In the beginning there was the oneness that proceeded creation. And then there was a division of the waters of the heavens and the waters below the heavens. And then there was further division that expressed itself in land and heavenly bodies. And then there was the division of living creatures. And then out of the oneness of the earth (adama) the person made of earth was brought forward - adam. And then there was a further division so that they were male and female. And from this separateness came a third and new entity – consciousness, self awareness, and eventually the children of Adam and Eve and all the generations since. There is in the created order, in human struggle, in each life of spiritual development a dividedness that has always been intended to be reunited in a new undivided unity but with the fruits from the process of the initial division. Paul said it “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no longer slave nor free, male nor female.”

This process can be glimpsed in the larger world and in our inner world. We are told it is happening in the birthing of new worlds and the dying of stars: the endless recycling of carbon expressed in new stars and breathing creatures. It is story of each body here – the division of cells that leads to a whole separate self that then seeks union with the divine and other humans thus bringing forth a new life – a child, a mission, an artistic expression from imagination into the seen world - and at last returns to the unifying embrace of God.

We see an expression of this is in Paul’s metaphor of the olive that is pruned (separated by the selective removal of certain parts that are not required so that there is additional energy for the development of flowers, fruits and limbs) and then grafted (which is the introduction of once separate plant parts) so that there is a new whole plant which is more varied and vigorous than the initial tree.

The alchemists, that ancient tradition of spirituality and science, understood that opposites must be separated before they could be reunited; that one became two before a third new element could come forward; that the reunion of opposites, the collision of two, were brought together in a sacred marriage or reconciliation and that this resulted in gold – physically and spiritually. Jesus and Paul this morning bring about a new reconciliation of once separated groups and this brings salvation to the Gentiles and the Jews, and healing to the individual.

So where in our life – personal and local shared life – might we see this pattern of differentiation and of reconciliation and reunion? What is the new third or new life expression that is waiting and needing to be birthed out of division and difference? What does reconciliation and healing look like on your farm, in your vegetable garden, around the family table, in our church fellowship, in your prayer life?

Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come and fill us with desire for your healing word.


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