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Trinity 12 Year A
The Syro-Phoenician Woman
back to sermons year A
The story we’ve just heard, about Jesus and the woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon, may – on the face of it – seem just to be about one of Jesus’ many miracles. But it actually raises some interesting questions. What, then, is it really all about?
Let’s look at it more closely. Jesus has been teaching and performing miracles at Gennesaret, on Lake Galilee. He has had a debate with some Pharisees about the true meaning of the Jewish religious law, and how it should be put into practice. He then leaves Galilee and goes northwards, towards the Mediterranean coast, out of Jewish territory and into the Gentile – non-Jewish – area where the two major towns were Tyre and Sidon. A woman from that area comes to him, asking for help. Her daughter is possessed by a demon, and she wants Jesus to cast it out.
The first point to note is Jesus’ initial reaction. He doesn’t, at first, give the woman any answer. Maybe he is wondering what to do. For the disciples who are with him, though, there is no such hesitation. “Send her away!”, they say, “She keeps crying out after us”. You would expect, perhaps, that Jesus would rebuke the disciples for their lack of compassion. But no; he himself tells the woman that he has come only for the lost sheep of Israel. In other words, he has no plans for non-Jews – such as her – to benefit from his miracles. But she perseveres, and begs him to help her. Again Jesus refuses, saying that it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs. The children, here, stand for the people of Israel, and their dogs stand for the Gentiles – surely not the kind of comparison we would expect to come from the mouth of Jesus. Still, however, the woman persists – and pleads for even a few crumbs of Jesus’ help. Her determination finally prevails, and Jesus heals her daughter.
There is quite a lot, then, to this little story. Jesus comes across, at first, as rather hard-hearted. But we can’t be sure about that. This miracle was perhaps a turning point in his ministry, the moment when he realised for the first time that he had come for people of every race and nation, not just for the Jews, among whom he had grown up.
It is also a story about the virtues of perseverance, of persistence. It reminds us not to give up when we ask God for help and there seems at first to be no answer.
But it is also seen as a story which commends a person’s simple, uncomplicated faith. Jesus says to the woman that it is her faith which has enabled him to heal her daughter. This direct and straightforward faith is like that of several other people who come to Jesus asking for his help: think of Zacchaeus, the tax collector; blind Bartimaeus; the centurion with the sick boy; and the woman with chronic bleeding. In all these cases, the people concerned have the faith that Jesus can change their lives, or the life of someone close to them – and Jesus does just that.
You may be thinking: this is all familiar stuff. Jesus finds faith in certain people, and rewards it. But there’s more to it than this. Remember that I said that before he went to the region on Tyre and Sidon, Jesus had been in debate with the Pharisees about how they saw religious life, the life which was governed by the ancient Jewish Law, given by God in the first place to Moses. In that debate, Jesus had quoted the prophet Isaiah, who had said, “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain, their teachings are but rules taught by men”. He had gone on to criticise the hypocrisy of some of the Pharisees, whose behaviour did not reflect the standards by which they claimed to live.
It is unlikely to be an accident, therefore, that the story of the gentile girl who is healed as a result of the faith and determination of her mother, follows directly after the account of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The contrast could hardly be stronger: God does not want us just to go through the motions of religion, however sophisticated these may be; he wants us to have a faith which comes from the heart, and which is reflected in our behaviour.
So that’s the main message of today’s gospel. God wants us to have a faith which is not afraid to ask things of him; a faith which isn’t easily squashed when God doesn’t immediately respond; and a faith which carries through into the way we live our lives.