10th Sunday after Trinity
Isaiah 56:1-8; Mt 15:21-28
St Barbara’s 16.8.2020
Rev Tulo Raistrick
I wonder whether you have ever been in the situation where someone you respect – maybe a colleague or a family member or someone at church – has said something which just seems out of place with their character and values. Maybe its a comment about another person or about an issue that just jars, that seems callous or uncaring. It can leave us feeling uncomfortable.
This story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman can make us feel similarly uncomfortable. On an initial reading of the account Jesus does not come across particularly well, apparently ignoring this woman, and then treating her as an inferior, before finally, and seemingly somewhat begrudgingly, granting her request for her daughter’s healing. We are left wondering: had Jesus got out of the wrong side of the bed that morning? Was he in a grumpy mood? Was he still frustrated by his disciples’ inability to understand his mission, and was now taking out some of his frustration on this gentile woman? After all, to ignore the woman and then seemingly to liken her and her people to dogs does not seem like the Jesus we are used to.
However, take a step back and we see something else going on, something important enough to merit the inclusion of this story in the gospel writers’ accounts, something that begins to put Jesus’ words and actions into context.
Firstly, Jesus is being clear: God has had a centuries’ long plan of salvation, a plan that will be worked out through the people of Israel, and that plan hasn’t changed. No wonder Matthew includes this story. Writing for a primarily Jewish audience, this was a crucial thing for them to hear. Following Christ was not about rejecting all that had gone before, not about throwing out all that God had revealed about himself through the Hebrew scriptures and through the people of Israel’s history. Rather, following Christ was about acknowledging that tradition and recognising that in Christ, God was fulfilling his plans. He is the Messiah spoken of by Israel’s prophets, such as Isaiah, who we heard in our first reading this morning.
What we now know as the Old Testament, but back then were simply the Hebrew scriptures, contains the story of God’s desire to bring the world back to himself. After the calamity of the Fall in the garden of Eden, God raises up a people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to act as a faithful people, to act as signposts pointing the whole world to the love and mercy of God, to live as examples of what it means to worship the one true God.
However, the story of the Old Testament is one, not just of God’s faithfulness, but of the people of Israel’s faithlessness, their inability to live up to their calling to be an example of faith for the rest of the world. Instead of modelling true worship and faithfulness, their story all too often descended into idolatry and disobedience. And yet what we see in this story of Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite woman is that despite all this, God has not given up on his plan. His desire is that Israel will still be the light to welcome the Gentiles. It is Jesus who embodies and fulfils the role of God’s people – it is why he speaks of being sent to the “lost sheep of Israel”.
The relevance of this to us, a predominantly non-Jewish people two thousand years on is that we see in it a God who has a plan for His world, who is working out His purposes, overcoming the obstacles no matter how big, to bring about salvation for His world. It means that we can trust in His promises, knowing that God doesn’t just drop them for a hidden Plan B when things don’t initially seem to work out. We do not need to panic or despair when things are not going in what seems a right or godly direction. We are to trust in God.
Over the last few months we have all learnt a lot about things not working out as we had planned. Even in the last few days, much of the news has been dominated by the thousands of holiday makers having to abandon holidays in France to return home before quarantine restrictions were imposed; and of A level students’ plans for careers and universities thrown into jeopardy by a seemingly unjust and unfair algorithm. We are left wondering whose plans can we trust. But Jesus, here in this story, reminds us that there is one whose plans we can trust. W can trust in God’s plans.
But this story is much more than just the fulfilment of God’s plan through the people of Israel in Jesus. There is another large theme here, and the unnamed Canaanite woman points us to it.
Back in the early 19th century many Christians agreed that slavery was abhorrent and something to be got rid of eventually, but they lacked a real urgency to act. Things could wait a little longer. In 20th century apartheid South Africa, many Christians wanted to see the end of discrimination and injustice but felt that the time was not quite right. In a few decades time, maybe… In both cases it took Christians not prepared to wait for the “inevitable to happen”, who worked with greater urgency and greater zest for justice, to bring about change: people such as William Wilberforce, Charles Simeon and Olaudah Equiano in the 19th century; Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Frank Chikane in the 20th.
In our gospel reading we encounter someone else with a similar state of urgency, someone not prepared to just sit and wait, but who wanted to see transformation now. Jesus initially seems to imply that she, as with all gentiles, needs to wait. Salvation will come to them, but not quite yet.
Well, this woman, a Gentile, is not prepared to wait. She gets rebuffed, not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times, as she cries out to Jesus for him to heal her daughter. Initially Jesus does not answer her; then his disciples tell her to go away; then Jesus tells her he has come for the Jewish people; and then he tells her it is not right to deprive children (the Jews) of their bread and give it to dogs (the Gentiles). Most of us would have been put off by the first or second rejection, but not this woman. She is remarkable in her tenacity and her perseverance. Motivated by her deep love for her daughter, inspired by her conviction that this man Jesus is not only capable of healing, but is the Messiah, she will not give up. She keeps holding on until Jesus responds.
Like the gentile Roman centurion with the sick servant, she is willing to persevere when initially discouraged, she is willing to believe even when the evidence looks bad, willing to trust in the love and compassion of Jesus even when this seems somewhat hidden. And like the centurion, Jesus ends up marvelling at, and commending her for, her faith: “Woman, you have great faith!” he says.
Indeed, one wonders whether she is the inspiration behind Jesus’ later parable of the persistent widow who will not stop harrying the judge until she gets justice.
For this woman wants the kingdom of God to break in now and not just some time in the future. She wants all the benefit from the presence of Israel’s Messiah now, not just in a future time once God’s chosen people have had their chance. She wants all peoples, all nations, to receive the hope of Christ now.
We too could do well to learn from this holy impatience, to want God’s kingdom now and not just some indeterminate time in the future. To pray, dare I say it, to “badger” God, that the fulness of his kingdom which will for sure come one day, will come this day: that justice will come to those who have been denied it, that healing will come to those in pain; that hope may come to the lonely and despairing; that salvation may come to the lost. Whether when praying for the peoples of Hong Kong and Belarus, or for A level students from poorer communities who have been disproportionally affected by grade reductions; or when praying for those we know who are suffering and in pain or going through tough times; or when praying for people we know and love to experience for themselves the love of God; to pray with holy impatience, for God’s kingdom to come this day, not just some day.
Jesus’ ultimate response to this woman was one of joy and respect: “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” May we live such lives of prayer and action, such tenacity and perseverance, that we hear him speak those words to us too.