What are we to make of Jesus in the story we’ve just heard? Here he is ignoring a distressed gentile woman because, he says, he’s come only for the Jews, and then calling her a dog and denying her the healing she so desperately wants for her daughter. It’s only when she manages a spirited retort that Jesus seems to change his mind and her daughter is healed.
Certainly this is not a picture of Jesus I feel comfortable with.
At times we probably all feel like the woman, in need of healing for ourselves or someone we love or simply needing acceptance of who we are when we feel we’re on the outside looking in.
I was feeling like that recently when I read our Gospel story and the picture of Jesus which apparently emerges made me angry. I knew exactly how that woman felt. I believed that God could heal and would be with me in difficulty but when I most needed God it felt as if he was ignoring me or making things worse by adding other problems. I felt that if I could come up with a quick, clever answer he might change his mind and respond but I wasn’t up to that. I didn’t want to believe that Jesus would ignore or reject anyone because then I feared he would ignore or reject me. I wanted to believe that he is the accepting and all-embracing Jesus we see elsewhere in the Gospels because then I could believe that he would accept and embrace me.
I struggled long and hard with the image of a God who seemed to ignore or reject people. I struggled both on my own and by letting off steam at anyone wearing a dog collar who happened to be around!
Eventually it dawned on me that God was hearing and responding to me but not in the way I was expecting. I think I was looking for some deep, mystical, spiritual experience of God’s presence when in fact he was there in the most real and practical way possible – so obvious that I couldn’t see for looking.
I found God in the people around me. The friend sitting opposite me and listening to me; the friend sitting beside me offering support, reassurance and a shoulder to cry on, the friend ‘phoning to see how I was and asking if I’d like to meet up for coffee. I found God in the people around me. That didn’t mean that all my problems were solved but I no longer felt so alone and isolated.
So, back to our Gospel story. Is there a way of understanding it in a different light, perhaps through the eyes of Jesus and the woman.
It comes in the middle of a chapter so let’s just recap on what has happened so far.
Pharisees come to Jesus to question him about his disciples not washing their hands in the proper way before eating and Jesus gives them a hard time about it. He calls them hypocrites and blind guides.
He points out to them that they frequently break the spirit of the law in order to follow their traditions, their rules and regulations and he quotes the prophet Isaiah saying that they honour God with words but not in their hearts. They teach human rules as if they were doctrine.
Jesus makes it clear that nothing people eat can make them unclean. It’s the way people think in their hearts and live their lives that matter.
We recognise this Jesus – angry at hypocrisy and concerned with the way people live.
The Pharisees are the very people who should have heard and understood Jesus’ teachings and recognised him for who he was but instead they are finding fault and arguing with him over points of law.
So, we have an angry and frustrated Jesus on one side and offended Pharisees on the other.
Now the gentile woman appears on the scene, distressed by her daughter’s illness but believing from what she has heard about him that Jesus could heal her. Perhaps she has followed Jesus for a while and heard the exchanges with the Pharisees.
She calls to Jesus and perhaps at first he genuinely doesn’t hear her – there are people around him talking and he’s distracted by the confrontation with the Pharisees. If the Jewish leaders won’t listen to him what is he to do?
The disciples tell Jesus to send the woman away as she’s making such a noise. Jesus looks at her and at the Pharisees who are still around him – what a contrast.
There are the Jews, the chosen people to whom he has been sent but who won’t listen to him and here is this gentile woman who is begging him for help which she believes he can give her. Maybe he recognises that this is a turning point in his ministry and something about the woman tells him that now is the moment to take that risk.
In a voice which mimics the self-righteousness of the Pharisees he announces that he has come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The woman recognises the voice of mimicry and comes closer to him, kneels at his feet and again asks for his help showing that she at least has faith in him.
Keeping up the act Jesus says that it’s not fair to feed the children’s food to the dogs and back comes her reply that what the children reject can be gladly received by others – even dogs – what he has to offer will not be wasted.
Jesus becomes himself again and tells her what she already knows in her heart, that faith in him has brought the healing she wanted.
He has shown those around him that God is concerned for all people and that rigid adherence to rules can lead to the rejection of people in need – the very people who matter to God.
After this story, the chapter continues with a report of Jesus now teaching and healing gentiles in an area by the Sea of Galilee where he again feeds thousands of people.
The Jewish Messiah is the saviour of all people.
We will never know the whole truth about what happened that day. But we can all be touched today by the woman’s story. It’s a story of grief, of faith, courage, strength and humour – it took all those things to bring her to Jesus and they shaped her relationship with him.
But the woman’s story takes place alongside, and as part of, other stories and it shapes them.
- ·There’s the story of Jesus’ relationship with Pharisees and how he and the woman challenge their narrow view.
- The story of the relationship between Jew and Gentile and how barriers begin to break down.
- ·And the great story of God’s relationship with all people – not just a chosen few.
God will respond to you and me as individuals but our stories and his response also take place alongside and as part of other stories.
- ·There are our own stories within this community and how we love and support each other.
- ·There is the story of the church as the body of Christ in this part of Taunton and how we relate to those around us.
- ·And there’s the great story of God’s relationship with all people today and how we, as the children of God, work towards peace and reconciliation throughout the world
How you and I allow God to shape our stories will affect how other stories are shaped. And we can choose to share with each other our stories of faith and of our experience of God – both the good times and the times when we struggle in darkness. By doing that we’ll learn more than we would ever learn from our story alone – we’ll grow and see a bigger picture.
I hope and pray that we will grow in faith and confidence so that we will feel able to tell each other about our experience of God in our everyday lives.