17 August 2014Matthew 15:21-28
“… great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (v. 28)
Here is one of many stories that Matthew has adapted from Mark's Gospel, putting his own 'spin' on it. Jesus has tried -as so often in his ministry - to get away from the crowds and has ended up in an area dominated by Gentiles - those who stand outside Jewish religion and culture. But even here he is recognised. Like a contemporary celebrity he can't just melt into his surroundings without being noticed.
Taken at face value, this is quite a difficult story. Jesus appears initially indifferent to the pleading woman and even uses the (in Jewish culture) insulting comparison with dogs. Only after a sharp exchange with the woman who refuses to take no for an answer does Jesus finally respond in a way that leads to the healing of her daughter.
Some recent interpretations of this passage see it as a situation in which even Jesus needs to learn how to overcome the limitations of his culture's attitude to women and foreigners. That, though, is unlikely to have been the Gospel's intention in giving us the story. Its main interest is more theological and there are perhaps two insights to pick up.
The first is about how Jesus sits within God's great purpose of salvation. The consistent picture from both the Old and New Testaments is that the people of Israel, for all their inconstancy and moral failure, are central to God's work in history. But it's not all about them: they are to be the channels through which God will reach out to the nations and offer salvation to the whole of humanity. In some ways the ministry of Jesus fits this overall picture; he has been "sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (v. 24). But his ministry is also a sign of God's concern for the whole world, so in this story, as in several others, we see the future breaking into the present.
The other theme is about persistence in prayer. The Bible has many examples of those who wrestle with God in prayer, taking to God their sense of pain and frustration as well as their experience of not being heard. This unnamed woman is a good example. She struggles and persists until eventually an answer comes. Because of this she is an example of great faith - not because she understands exactly what Jesus means, but that she is totally focused on him.
- What has been your experience of struggling with unanswered prayer?
- If you were to have a conversation with Jesus about your present situation, what would you want to say?
- Who are people in your community who tend to get left out when it comes to sharing and service?