Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32
Make no mistake: the story of the encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman is one of the most troubling in all the Gospels—and yet it’s one of the most rewarding.
In today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus meets a woman and implies that because she is a Canaanite person, she can be called a dog. It’s what we would call these days a ‘racial slur’; the Canaanites were ancient and bitter enemies of Israel, whose ancestors had led Israel away to worship idols. If this were the only story of Jesus that we knew, would he be an attractive figure?
This story is an embarrassment, it always has been. People have tried to get around it in various ways. They note that Jesus said ‘puppy’, not ‘dog’; but puppies are just as religiously ‘unclean’ as grown-up dogs.
They say that Jesus was testing the faith of this woman who was only trying to get help for her daughter. They are trying to ‘protect’ Jesus, but they are unconvincing. Again, think: if this were the only story about Jesus we had, what opinion would you have of him? Actually, I hope you’d still end up with a pretty good opinion of Jesus. I’d hope that if this was all we knew about Jesus, we’d think highly of him.
What seems to be happening here is that Jesus enters this conversation as a Jew protecting the place of the Jews as God’s covenant people—
I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,
Jesus is being consistent here. In Matthew chapter 10, when he sent the disciples to preach the good news and heal the sick, he told them,
Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
There’s that phrase again: ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. It occurs only these two times in Matthew’s Gospel, but the meaning is clear: the mission of Jesus is to renew the faith of Israel, to bring Israel’s lost ‘home’.
Yet through her persistence, wit and need, this Canaanite woman—this person who was way outside God’s promises to Israel—changes his mind, and so he says,
Woman, great is your faith!—
and the daughter she loves is healed.
It’s hard for many believers to accept that Jesus changes his mind. We think we’re letting the side down if we do. We think if Jesus changes his mind it’s a sign of imperfection, if not sin. Friends, it’s a sign of loving, faithful commitment to the truth if we change our minds when new light comes into our lives. Jesus was fully divine and fully human; he became a baby and grew up in a small town. He grew as we grow, he matured, he changed—and this woman brought new light into the eyes of the Light of the world.
The woman doesn’t say Jesus is wrong; she acknowledges him as Lord and Son of David, she accepts that the children have first place at the table. And God has a plan of salvation that still includes the Jewish people; we don’t know much about it, but the Apostle Paul is convinced that God will never desert his first people. The woman ‘gets’ this.
So the eternal Word-made-flesh listens to the words of a Gentile woman, a woman right on the outside of God’s promises, and he has compassion. This is why I’d hope that if this was all we knew about Jesus, we’d have a high opinion of him.
It is very significant that Matthew places the story of the Canaanite woman and the discussion about ‘Things that defile’ together. Jesus has just told the disciples,
Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.
This woman ate her bacon sandwiches and prawns (maybe together?—surely not!); and to the Jewish people that meant she was unclean. But Jesus says it’s not what goes into the mouth that makes us unclean, but what comes out. And what came out of her mouth were good words.
‘Woman, great is your faith!’ This reminds me of another person Jesus met from outside God’s covenant people. This was a man, a Roman centurion, and he too wanted Jesus to heal someone close to him. He wanted his servant to be healed.
In Matthew’s account (8.5-13) the centurion, this member of the all-conquering Roman race, comes humbly to Jesus and asks for help. He doesn’t ask Jesus to come to his home; he knows that will make Jesus unclean. He asks for him to heal his servant at a distance. And Jesus says,
Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.
And his final words to the centurion are,
Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.
Very similar indeed to his parting words to the Canaanite woman:
Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.
The promises of God are poured out upon all people, as the Spirit was poured out on all flesh at Pentecost. The promises are now to the centurion, part of Rome’s occupying army; the promises are for the woman, a reminder of bygone hatreds.
The promises are for us today, but they are for more than us: they are also for those who represent things that we hate or fear or even despise. They are for boat people, gay people, all people. All people.
Let me tell you a story from my experience that still challenges me. It concerns a patient in the Wesley Hospital Renal Dialysis Unit, and I mentioned it when I preached at the Rev’d Henry Swindon’s induction at St Andrew’s Hospital.
I was always challenged by meeting patients who had to sit in renal dialysis several times a week, dependent on machines to stay alive, hoping against hope month after month for a transplant to come up.
On this occasion I walked into the renal unit, and I went up to the first bed. I’d never met this patient before. He was an Asian man, and he positively beamed a welcome at me. Before I could even sit, he announced with the same infectious smile, ‘Life is suffering!’
I thought to myself, I know where you’re coming from. ‘Life is suffering’ is how the ‘First Noble Truth’ of Buddhism is often expressed. And I had a lovely time with this Buddhist gentle man, allowing him to share the joy in his soul with me. I really hope I helped him, because by the time I left his side, I at least was feeling really great!
‘Life is suffering’ sounds a pretty pessimistic and downbeat outlook on life. It may be, I don’t know enough about Buddhism to say differently. But this patient had allowed this confronting truth to light up his inner being. Even while sitting for hours at a time in the Wesley Renal Dialysis Unit.
Looking back, I may have felt a bit like our Lord did about the centurion’s faith, and the Canaanite woman’s faith: ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.’ They weren’t members of the covenant people of Israel, but they had great faith. And God loved them.
The Buddhist renal patient may not have ‘known Jesus’ in the sense that we speak of it, but I believe that he knew the ‘Jesus way’ of suffering and rising again in his very flesh and bones. I believe that he had found that true life comes out of experiences of loss and grief and even death. I believe the Spirit of Jesus Christ had taught this truth to his spirit, so that he was a child of God even though he had not ‘signed on the dotted line’ as a Christian. I believe that Jesus walked with him on this way and I believe that when this man would one day see Jesus face to face, he’d recognise an old and valued friend and he’d bow the knee.
We need to remember the words of Jesus on his encounter with the centurion:
I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…
Jesus goes on to warn that just being one of God’s people is no guarantee of anything. Merely being a member of the Uniting Church is no guarantee of anything. Our eyes need to be opened by the Spirit of Jesus.
Jesus saw the Canaanite woman and the centurion as persons of great faith. If our eyes are opened by the Spirit, we will see great faith in the most unlikely places. As Jesus listened to them, so we too should listen to people on the outside. So keep your eyes and ears open this next week, and you may find that there are people who share the Spirit of Jesus who are not part of the Church, yet who have faith in the Lord with whatever light they have. Be prepared to be astounded.