This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Wednesday 3 August. Here it is again for you.
Anthony Bloom, a leader in the Orthodox Church, wrote many books on prayer and meditation. One piece of advice has stuck in my mind. If you are choosing a piece of scripture for meditation, choose either a passage that really sets your heart on fire, or one that you find really difficult. Today’s gospel reading is definitely in the latter category. It takes a certain amount of courage to approach this passage head on, as we hear Jesus speaking to a caring mother in a way that sounds callous and borders on racist. Here’s one interpretation that allows us to believe that Jesus was kind and compassionate but could still have said these things.
Let’s start by remembering that Jesus is very good at seeing what is going on in the hearts of people, such as the woman at the well. She found her private life exposed by Jesus, the wandering teacher who had asked for a glass of water. In a similar way, Jesus saw the woman in today’s story as she really was and recognised her spirit and determination.
She has come to ask for her daughter’s healing, and her strategy is to simply keep shouting out for help until she receives an answer. It’s the disciples who respond first and ask Jesus to send her away. She is a mere woman, worse than that, a mere gentile woman, and has no business bothering a respectable rabbi. They have been grumbling among themselves about her effrontery in wanting to benefit from the ministry of Jesus that was clearly intended for God’s chosen people. They called her a gentile dog. Jesus looks the woman in the eye and gives her a knowing smile. At first, she is unsure, but almost imperceptibly he nods, perhaps even a wink, and she understands that a game is being played, and with Jesus on her side. He voices the words the disciples have been muttering “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The disciples all nod in agreement. She comes right up to him, kneels down and replies “Lord, help me”. The disciples tut and murmur some more. Who does she think she is, continuing to pester him? He gives her another reassuring look, missed by the disciples, and replies “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”. The disciples are less confident now. It’s one thing to call someone a dog amongst yourselves, it’s another thing to say it to someone’s face. They are a little shocked, and embarrassed to hear their own words quoted. She replies “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. There is no possible retort that could be made and retain a shred of human decency. She has risen to the occasion, won the debate and the disciples are put in their place. Now Jesus speaks from his heart “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done as you wish” and precisely at that moment the woman’s daughter was healed.
The disciples have learnt a lesson, that faith is more important than ethnic background or religious observance. The woman has not only got her wish that her daughter should be healed but has had from Jesus not a patronising or grudging agreement to perform the miracle, but a vindication of her daring to behave in a way that opened herself to criticism and abuse, and she has won a ringing commendation of her faith. She played Jesus’ game, and hard though it was, it was worth it.
In telling us this story Matthew paved the way for the Early Church to understand that the gospel was for all, not just the Jews. But there is also a lesson about the way God interacts with us. Our loving heavenly father’s desire for us is that we grow into independent adults, and he doesn’t want our unthinking obedience. He does not object to our answering back. He is inviting us to the table with him, to ask, to discuss, to imagine, to voice our opinions, to be heard, to play and to become ourselves. He helps us to be bold in our requests and to love with our minds as well as our hearts. Sometimes he makes us wait for our hearts’ desires to be granted, but in the cut and thrust of the dialogue our relationship with God is deepened and our faith confirmed.
I am indebted to Eavesdropping by Henry Martin