Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Syrophoenician woman and her daughter

I haven't had much time to blog recently, and because of problems with my car (fixed now!) I haven't been able to go to church the last two weeks either. But it rceently came to my attention what the reading was last week. It was a fascinating reading and one that has given me (and I'm sure a lot of you) a lot of trouble. In it, Jesus speaks to a petitioner in a dismissive, almost abusive voice. A Canaanite woman asks him to heal her daughter, and at first he refuses, and compares her to a dog. Here's the passage:

Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

Why did Jesus refuse twice to heal her daughter? Some might say that Mark saw Jesus' mission as to the Jews first and foremost, or that Jesus saw himself as a Jewish reformer first and foremost. I think that's no answer. Jesus wasn't a "Jewish reformer", nor just another wandering rabbi. There were many of those, and none of them were the incarnate Word made flesh. And he wasn't sent to minister to a particular people. He knew- well maybe not from the beginning of the world, as I have problems with the notion of predestination, but certainly long before the Incarnation- what the purpose of the Incarnation would be, and it wasn't a mission to improve Judaism, it was much bigger- it was to redeem all humanity from sin, death, and the devil.

To me the real answer is in Jesus' words to the woman, "Great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt." (Parenthetically, isn't it interesting how his words to the Canaanite woman echo those of St. Mary at the Annunciation?). So many of the people in the New Testament who demonstrate great faith, are women. The woman who broke a vase of oil to anoint Jesus, the woman who washed His feet with her tears, the women who were the first to see the empty tomb of the resurrection, and most of all St. Mary who said "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord: be it unto me according to Thy word." Truly, faith seems to be a gift that women naturally possess more than men (it's no accident that all over the world women tend to be more devout.)

But back to the passage. I think that Jesus was testing the faith of the woman. His refusals weren't "refusals" at all, they were questions. He was asking the woman whether she truly had faith in him, just as he asked the crippled man at the pool whether he truly wanted to be healed. And it's of the nature of faith that we don't just believe in God when things are going well, and when God appears to be smiling on us. True faith means believing in God's pure goodness even when all reason tells you that you shouldn't. True faith means believing that as dark as the world appears to be, the darkness has not overcome the light. True faith means believing that even when God appears dismissive, or indifferent, or cruel, that this is false, that God has his purposes and that ultimately He cares for us, and that whatever is cruel in this world, it isn't God. If faith were some kind of a bargain, where we love God in exchange for good things happening to us, then the woman's action would be inexplicable, and so would the action of Jesus. But it isn't. The nature of God is that being a perfectly good being, he would be deserving of love and worship quite independently of anything that He does for us. True faith means loving God even when things look darkest, and even when He looks most indifferent; it means believing, against all evidence, that He is never indifferent, and that ultimately He will never break his promise. That was the kind of faith that St. Peter had when he hung upside-down on his cross, that Joan of Arc had when she languished in a Burgundian prison, that Thomas Cranmer had when he went to the stake proclaiming his faith, and that people have in the prisons of North Korea and the Sudan, and in the shantytowns of Africa and South America today. It was also the faith of Job: "Though He destroy me, yet will I trust in Him."

Jesus was testing the woman's faith, and for a moment He appeared to be cruel, in order that he might reveal the strength of her faith, and in order that He could soon be kind. I have little doubt that this was among the most painful decisions of His life, equal to the decision not to come down from the Cross. But everything in the Gospels is there for a reason, and this is what I think the reason was.

Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall ever be.

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