s053g02 Lockleys 18/8/02 Sunday 20
"Woman, great is your faith!" Matthew 15.27
This story is not one of my favourite ones in the gospels, but it leads us to question what was important to Jesus and what the mission was about. The *ever helpful* disciples suggest that Jesus send her away, just as they suggested Jesus send the 5000 away to get their own food. But Jesus never turns people away.
There are a number of possible reasons that initially Jesus seemed reluctant to do as this woman asked.
It could have been that his reluctance was because she was a woman. It could have been that she was a foreigner. It could have been that she expected too much or that the illness wasn't severe enough. It could be that Jesus actually didn't come to heal everyone who managed to come in contact with him.
It could also have been that Jesus' knew the truth that there are few of us who aren't possessed with demons of one kind or another and while these demons are very easy for others to see in us, they are quite comfortable for the person themselves. People regularly hold on to their demons - for they can provide a measure of security, and no amount of outside exorcism will pry such a demon away. "Better the devil you know .." And a person's special gift may be seen as an impediment to someone looking on.
I was interested to read recently of an alternative therapist who injured her wrist. It was only when she came to the realisation that part of the cause of the injury was her fear of failure, that, after months of "traditional" treatment, facing this fear lead to the wrist being healed and she could begin her new practice. As I prepare to travel overseas, I too am filled with a mixture of fear and anticipation. Indeed I suppose that there would be few parents who didn't have very clear ideas of how Jesus could *help* their children. We all have our own lives to lead.
It was quite clear that women were of great assistance to the mission of Jesus. I will not quote the passages. The extent of Jesus' travels would have been quite impossible without their assistance. I was interested to read recently on the internet the suggestion that the word "Matilda" (of "Waltzing Matilda" fame), may well have been derived from the women who followed armies about, providing *companionship* to the soldiers, far from their families. Whether this is true or not, I do not know. It was quite possible that Jesus had a soft spot in his heart for women and was unable to do anything but accede to their requests. This incident shows us that this is not the case. Just because one is of the fairer gender - one does not get one's way all the time - at least with Jesus :-)
It is also untrue that Jesus doesn't respond because a particular illness is especially life threatening. He delayed going to his friend Lazarus' aid. He cured Peter's mother in law's fever, long standing disabilities, and also raised the dead. The whole range of illnesses concerned him. I have sometimes wryly wondered if Peter was pleased his mother in law was cured :-) And whether Lazarus was pleased to have been raised?
The next possibility is that Jesus was reluctant because she was a foreigner. But we need to be careful here if we are going to ascribe a special status to Jesus' own people. He describes them as "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" - hardly a complementary term. The first part of our gospel portion today makes it quite plain that Jesus wasn't concerned with the reaction the religious authorities had at his words. The disciples reported to Jesus that the Pharisees took offence at his words.
It is my faith that Jesus was calling the people of the old covenant to return to the conception that they were always to be a blessing to others, just as Jesus ever calls us as Christians to not spend our lives eternally navel gazing, but to be a blessing to others also. I certainly have no doubt that the message is as necessary now to us as it was to them, then. We do about as well as, and about as badly as they, or anyone else, did or does. So Jesus was sent to his own people, but that was so that they themselves could then witness to the prodigalness of God for all people.
So, yes, Jesus didn't come primarily to heal everyone who managed to come into contact with him. He came to proclaim the prodigalness of God.
It should also be noted that Jesus also didn't accede to the request of the woman because she knelt before him. I am reminded of the rich young man who rushes up to Jesus and asks: "Good Teacher, what must I do ...?" Jesus answers "Why do you call me good, no one is good but God alone." Jesus doesn't respond to flattery. And this is an important point, because it means that God doesn't listen to us as Anglicans because we flatter God in the "correct" or most obsequious way. It is not that our Christian worship is *better* than Jewish worship, and therefore by extension all worship to God is accepted as it is.
If I do not make this point, we can be left wondering what we must do to get God to hear our requests, and we can be lead to ever more obsequious behaviour, which is pointless. Or it can lead us on a wild goose chase to find the *correct* religion. If God is the God of the whole universe, God accepts the worship of all.
The response that touches Jesus' heart is that "even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall ..." But we must be clear, and it is the reason why the point about obsequiousness is so important - is that Jesus doesn't respond finally to the complete obsequiousness the woman displayed - but he responds to her faith that God always has blessings for others. Her faith is that if God is truly God, God is prodigal towards all.
Again, as he does so often to the most unlikely of people, he says to this foreign woman: "Great is your faith". Where he ought to have found this faith in a prodigal God - in the Pharisees of his day - Jesus found they took offence, and took offence at precisely this prodigalness. Where Jesus ought to have found this sort of faith in his disciples, he experienced only people wanting not to be bothered with others and wanting to tell others where to go. Every time we find ourselves in a position of responsibility, the temptation is always to limit the prodigalness of God and we as Christians are as prone to do this as anyone else.
Jesus took time with this woman, rather to the chagrin of his disciples. They didn't like people who shouted after them, and I have some sympathy for them in this respect. It mustn't have been an easy discipleship, not knowing what would happen next or how Jesus would respond - to them or to others. I think I would have been as much at "sixes and sevens" as they often seemed to be, if I were them. Actually I think I have been like that most of my life ... But Jesus accepted this shouting, in reality worship, it shows us that he accepts worship which is perhaps less than seemly.
This leads me to ponder that perhaps those rather shocking words (to our ears) were in fact in response to the woman kneeling before him, rather than any slight towards her nationality or gender. Perhaps Jesus was saying to her, in no uncertain terms: "Get to your feet, I don't want anyone grovelling ..." This is certainly an interpretation I prefer and it has echoes elsewhere in the gospel.
This story tells us that Jesus was on the look out for faith, and that he found faith in all sorts of people, people who, in other circles would be considered unlikely candidates for faith.
So Jesus also looks at us with the same eyes, looking and finding faith in us - for as I've talked with you, it is clear that while you respect and hold your own version of faith dearly, you recognise that God loves other people as much as God loves you.
Jesus was on the lookout for faith because while it may have been good for individuals that their various illnesses were cured - in the end - that one person is cured isn't likely to stop the multitude of other causes for suffering - humanity's inhumanity towards one another.
As I begin to reflect, the reality is that much suffering is caused through people feeling that they do not have a contribution to make. The sadness of unemployment is not that here in Australia people are starving on the streets. There are a few people who fall through the cracks in the system to assist people to have the basic necessities of life, and if they do, it is often through their own choices, past or present. No, the sadness is that people feel that they have nothing to contribute and their self esteem suffers accordingly. Those of the older generation jealously guard their ministries lest someone come and exercise those ministries better. People live a lifetime of helping others and find it difficult to be on the receiving end of the assistance of others. It should be a salutary lesson to us all that we need to be acutely conscious that our "help" is not in fact demeaning the other person. How many people get help surreptitiously, manipulating others lest people glimpse their inadequacy or their lack of control? In doing so they deny the other the joy of being able to be of some small assistance to them.
So while I always inwardly cringe at the statement of Jesus to this woman - it is always tempered by the retort she gives and Jesus' subsequent affirmation of her faith. The lessons this incident bring us are important, and perhaps we can see that the gospel would be incomplete without them.
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