Unsung Models of faith
There are so many models of faith in Bible. Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Elijah, prophets of the OT are good examples. We have many more in the NT, Mary, disciples (atleast after Pentecost) and many others fit the bill in different ways. There are also some characters, about whom we don't hear much, who are present in one or two scenes in the gospel, and come out as beautiful model of faith. Jairus, whose daughter was resuscitated, or the centurion who was at the foot of the cross may seem to fit this bill very well. There is also this Canaanite woman (or also known as Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel of Mark) who is a beautiful model of faith.
Jesus left Gennesaret and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Then out came a Canaanite woman from that district and started shouting, ‘Sir, Son of David, take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ But he answered her not a word. And his disciples went and pleaded with him. ‘Give her what she wants,’ they said ‘because she is shouting after us.’ He said in reply, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ But the woman had come up and was kneeling at his feet. ‘Lord,’ she said ‘help me.’ He replied, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.’ She retorted, ‘Ah yes, sir; but even house-dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.’ And from that moment her daughter was well again. (Matthew 15:21–28)
I have highlighted a few parts of this reading which is not easy to interpret. Even in Mathew’s gospel, this is not the first time Jesus is coming across a non-Jew. Jesus has used strong words on the pharisees occasionally; but there are no other occurrences of harsh words towards a common man/woman who came for healing. I don’t know whether these words of house-dogs have some other connotations in Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek languages, but it comes quite strongly or in a slight derogatory manner in English and other Indian languages. There can be two ways of interpreting it.
- Jesus was testing her; but use of such languages even for testing may not be so easily gel with the character of a person like Jesus. In this understanding, the woman’s faith passed over the test in flying colours. There are almost three rejections. There are not many examples of people sustaining in their faith even after three difficult statements or actions from Jesus. Her faith is just amazing.
- The woman brought to the consciousness of Jesus his universal mission. It is not true to say that he suddenly changed at that moment in his understanding of his mission, but that non-Jewish (Canaanite to be precise) woman’s words were a harsh reminder for him. This theory can be accepted only if it takes the humanity of Jesus and his kenosis (emptying of the divinity) seriously. Just as he learned from Mary and Joseph, he also learned from others in the course of his life.
I personally prefer or am inclined to think in the second way. Thus it can be a special reminder to all, especially the leaders and the gifted of the church to listen to all, especially ones in the peripheries. Sometimes, the spirit gives the great wisdom for the progress of the Kingdom of God through the children; it can also be through those in the peripheries. If Jesus listened, how much more the leaders should…Probably that is the inspiration for the Synod in the church too. Surely we may have much more to learn about the process of listening, but we have made a start, though slow or very slow.
Another way the entire question may be looked into is by reading the passage along with that of passages like sacrifice of Issac by Abraham. They are singular events or passages, and there is a message, which in both cases is that of faith. The message of Abraham’s passage is not to give your children in sacrifice when God demands and to save them in faith. The message is of faith; I think the similar reasoning can be applied to this passage too.