Matthew 15: 10-28
Jesus heals the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter
The story of the Syro-Phoenician woman, as this is known, has to be one of the most baffling and disturbing episodes recounted in any of the gospels. Jesus appears indifferent to this woman’s plight, having earlier publicly reviled the teachers of the Law as ‘blind guides’ who are concerned only with outward appearances. The only other comparable moment, in regard to the woman, is his brief exchange with the person sent to tell him (while he is in the middle of a conversation) that his mother and family would like a word with him outside (Matt. 12:47). You will remember that his rather curt reply consisted in using the moment to emphasize the fact that his true mother, and brothers and sisters are those who hear the word of God and act on it. This is not the Jesus we like to think we know.
We have grown rather used to a polite and accommodating Jesus. In fact, the lectionary, as set for this Sunday, even offers us the opportunity to miss out the first ten verses, the ones about the things that defile, and go straight to the story of the woman who Jesus appears, at first, to be ignoring. But I think it is important to treat the whole passage as a single piece, even though they may pertain to two entirely unrelated incidents. The writer, or compiler, of Matthew’s gospel would have had his own reasons for placing them together.
For us, today, having them side by side is very helpful. Right now, we are living in an emotional climate where defilement or ‘contamination’ is a serious issue. We are becoming used to living with the need to sanitise our surroundings and to keep a distance from one another, and this situation may go on for some time. But we also need to be reminded of what real contamination consists of, which is not in any way to minimise the measures we all need to take to avoid catching the covid virus.
The contamination, or ‘defiling’ that Jesus is talking about in the first part of this reading, relates to the human heart, the things we think, as well as say, that diminish us, or diminish someone else. The thoughts that hover over our heads like speech bubbles.
Anyone who remembers reading comics as a child will know what I mean when I speak of speech bubbles – they can be hard and spiky or soft edged, depending on whether the words are being said or thought. The speech bubbles hovered over the heads of Desperate Dan or Dennis the Menace with whatever it is they were thinking or saying written in them, or implied by exclamation marks.
We all go around with a speech bubble hanging over our heads. They are the product of our thoughts, of the state of our hearts and, more often than not, of our fears. When we are afraid, we look around, unconsciously perhaps, for someone to blame, or to look down on, or to simply ignore so that we can feel a little more secure, in whatever ways we need to feel secure.
So there follows from Jesus’s quite harsh words on the subject of defilement the incident with the woman who comes to him begging for her daughter to be healed. He remains silent. If this were a comic strip, what would be written in the speech bubble over his head? What is he really thinking? we ask ourselves. It seems that she does not qualify for his attention, let alone his healing, because she is a gentile. She is referred to as a Canaanite and the Canaanite people were pagans at the time. So it seems that she does not qualify for healing because she does not belong to the right group, and she is the first to admit this. Jesus, ignores her, it seems, for this reason and this makes for very uncomfortable reading for us today, unless we take the time to get further into the situation and read it for what it is.
It turns on the subject of faith and belonging. To trust in Jesus is to belong to him and to all those who truly love him. Tribal loyalties have no place in the economy of the Kingdom, an economy that is built on trust, mercy, and above all, love. We read this passage then, taking full account of what Jesus’s silence really means. We sense that he already loves this woman. Perhaps she knows this. She is fearless both because of the urgency of her need and perhaps because her need for him emboldens her, as it did other women who were close to him. Our love for Christ, and the extent to which we recognise our need for him, breaks down the barriers of otherness, as it did for this woman. It compels us to step forward in love so that healing or forgiveness can take place where there has been nothing but fear and distrust.
Jesus’s silence also affords us with an opportunity to look at those places where we are silent in regard to others, to those who don’t belong, where we create a ‘them and us’ society, or church, or neighbourhood. It invites us to consider where we stand in relation to people who are different.
It also takes us back to the terrible hatreds that have re-surfaced over these past months in regard to race. When we are afraid, where there is a climate of fear, there is also violence. The Black Lives Matter movement arises, in part at least, out of fear, the nameless fear and the need to blame someone or something for whatever it is we are afraid of in the ‘other’, and to perhaps project onto them the dark fears swirling out from a pandemic that we do not understand and cannot control.
That then, is us, in the moment of silence between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.
But what are they both saying to us, in regard to our unnameable fears and hatreds? She, who is after all the person most in need of a response, holds steady. She even dares to question Jesus. He likes that about her. But that is not why he heals her daughter. He heals her daughter because of her unwavering trust and courage, the kind of trust and courage that enables her to cross a line, to inhabit a different place in regard to what really matters to God, these things having nothing whatever to do with issues of defilement or race.
All of this returns us to the place we are still inhabiting in regard to Covid and all the strictures it still places on us. What are the lines that we must’nt cross? And what are the lines that we can and must cross? Of course, the answer to the first question is any line that puts the health of another person or our own at risk. But what about the lines we must cross? I think these are the lines that subtly delineate the limits of our own courage and faith in regard to how we think of ourselves, our communities and this continuing virus. When God seems silent, and people all over the world are ill or dying, we who have been spared so far must hold steady in the knowledge that God holds all things to himself, including what is still a very uncertain future. Faith is about this knowledge. It is the knowing that matters, the knowing that in Jesus we have a God who walks with us, who will yet heal us of our fears and of the hatreds they can engender, a God who even now lives deep within us.