14 August 2011

"Then Jesus answered her, 'Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.' And her daughter was healed instantly." (v. 28)


This story about a healing that Jesus performs outside the boundaries of his native Israel is intriguing and controversial. He has withdrawn to the district of Tyre and Sidon, possibly to get a break from the crowds that have been following him hoping to see miracles done. But even here there is someone, a Gentile (non-Jewish) Canaanite woman, who has tracked him down and is desperate for Jesus to heal her daughter (who is not present at the scene). The story is controversial for two reasons, firstly that he appears to be quite rude to her, and secondly that he seems to change his mind about the focus of his ministry. The account first appears in Mark's Gospel (Mark 7:24-30), which Matthew and Luke clearly copied from. Yet Luke omits the story altogether, perhaps feeling that it might show Jesus in a bad light.

But Matthew retells the story, and in doing so shows something about the nature of true faith (and perhaps about persistence in prayer). The way he tells it, the woman gets rejected three times, and yet persists. First, she calls out for mercy, naming Jesus as "Son of David" (v. 22). In Matthew's Gospel this is a key title for Jesus (Matthew's genealogy in the first chapter (verse 1-17) traces Jesus' direct descent from David), so it is respectful of his identity as the Jewish Messiah. But Jesus gives no reply. Then she tries approaching him through the disciples, who just moan to Jesus that her outcry is annoying them. This time Jesus asserts an exclusive mission: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (v. 24). This fits with the instructions he gave to his disciples to go and preach through all the villages and towns of Israel (chapter 10). Then she kneels to Jesus, as if in worship, and simply begs "Lord, help me" (v. 25).

But Jesus resists her again, with his proverb about denying the children bread and throwing it to the dogs. This may be a well known saying about barmy priorities, but given how unclean dogs were felt to be, it hardly sounds complimentary to her as a Gentile. Then comes the triumphant 'turn' of the story: instead of taking offence, the woman twists his proverb around and insists that even the dogs are part of the picture. She defeats his resistance like a skilled debater of the Jewish law, and he seems now to be delighted. She has to fight for her daughter's right to be healed, but she wins. She is a living example of the life of faith described in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:7): "Ask, and it will be given you." Astonishingly, Jesus' final reply, "let it be done for you as you wish" actually echoes the Lord's Prayer, and could just as well be translated "your will be done".

To Ponder

Does Jesus' behaviour in this story bother you? How do you explain it?

Have you ever experienced a sense of being 'resisted' in something you have prayed for earnestly? What happened in the end?

Bible notes author: Janet Morley

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