The Cry of Faith
Twentieth Sunday of the Year. Fr Dermot Morrin suggests that the faith of the Gentile Woman is the true faith of the Church.
The woman’s cry is one of profound faith in Jesus. Her request is simple. Her daughter is possessed by a demon. We can hardly begin to imagine just what this woman and her daughter must have suffered. This poor woman believes that Jesus can free her daughter from her terrible affliction. In her sincere and humble faith the Canaanite woman stands in contrast with so many others in the Gospel. She does not ask for a sign, nor does she ask for the best place in his kingdom. This woman of faith simply asks that her daughter to be made well again.
When we read Matthew’s Gospel it is hard not to sense the tension between Jesus declaration that he has been sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel only and the end of the Gospel when the Risen Jesus sends his disciples out to make disciples of all nations.
But in part the tension is within us. We Gentiles tend to forget that Jesus was a Jew. We tend to listen to him speaking in the Gospels as if he was speaking directly to us today in our context. We tend to forget that Jesus lived out his ministry of teaching and healing as a Jew among Jews. We tend to forget that this was what he was sent to do. In doing so we neglect some of the implications of our faith that Jesus is the fulfilment of all the promises which God has made to his people Israel.
On that day, when the Canaanite woman called out after Jesus, “Son of David, take pity on me”, the divide between Jew and Gentile was very real. It is only in his death and resurrection that Jesus overcomes this barrier. Then, Christians could see that God has no favourites.
But even though throughout his ministry Jews would reject Jesus, and eventually crucify him, he never rejects them. To do so would be the negation of God’s covenant with the Israel, and his mission.
The focus in this passage isn’t on the healing of the child but on the woman’s faith. The child is healed at a distance. The mother’s confidence that Jesus can heal her daughter is unshakeable. The woman will not be put off. When Jesus states the limited nature of his mission, she responds by expressing the true faith of Israel. She speaks like a Jew who believes in Jesus.
Although the language of children and dogs may offend our modern sensitivity, it makes sense in the context of the gospel. In faith this woman acknowledges the distinction between Jew and Gentile but she also acts from the deep-felt conviction that this barrier can and will be overcome. In a sense, her faith anticipates the Resurrection and Pentecost.
The real miracle is the very fact that such faith could be found in the heart of this Gentile woman. Shortly before this scene, when Jesus visits the synagogue at Nazareth he encounters such a lack of faith that he can work few miracles. Before the Gospel ends we will see just how weak the faith of Peter and the other disciples turns out to be.
By contrast, this Canaanite woman’s faith is unshakeable. It seems that true faith in Jesus is found not among those to whom he was sent, but outside of Israel. We are reminded of the centurion, another gentile whose servant was ill. Again Jesus remarked, “Nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this.”
In fact although Matthew stresses that Jesus was sent first to Israel, his Gospel is punctuated with examples of Gentile faith. Matthew alone tells us of the Magi. Jesus praises the faith of the centurion at Capernaum and of the Canaanite woman and after the death of Jesus it is a Roman centurion who says “In truth this was a Son of God”.
In these Gentiles who have faith in Jesus, Matthew anticipates the preaching of the Gospel to all nations. Indeed, he anticipates our own incorporation into Christ. And perhaps in our twenty-first century world, he anticipates a situation where the greatest divide is not between Jew and Gentile but between those who have faith and those who have none.
Finally, this gospel passage should make us humble and grateful. Notice how the Canaanite woman’s cry of faith comes between the two miracles of the feeding of the crowds. In both cases not only did all have their fill, but there were twelve and then seven baskets left over, reminding us that in God’s kingdom there is more than enough room for all people, even us.
We need not worry about where we sit at table, the main thing is that we belong. We belong to God’s holy people not by anything we ourselves have done but by what Christ has done for us. We have been given a part to play in God’s plan of salvation, not by birth, but rather by our rebirth through the water and the Spirit.
May we never fail to give thanks that we can be called God’s children, for through his love and mercy that is what we are.