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The Canaanite woman’s faith (April 28, 2024)

Sheldon Sorge reflects on the Canaanite woman who challenged Jesus to change his mind and the power of intercession.

Outlook Standard Lesson for April 28, 2024
Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: ​​​Matthew 15:21-28

Unlikely heroes

Most of us can quickly name people whose faith has inspired us to trust God more fully. Chances are they are good church people. One of the striking features of the Gospels is that they lift up the faith of many we’d least expect to find there. Two weeks ago, we considered the faith of a Roman centurion, who represented everything the Jewish community hated about its foreign occupation. Last week, we looked at a woman of ill repute scandalously pouring out her love for Jesus. And this week we encounter the faith of a Gentile woman from an area whose people have long been at odds with the Jewish community, even to this day. Interestingly, none of these people are identified by name in the Gospel texts.

Today’s story has the added complication of Jesus’ uncharacteristic responses to the Lebanese woman. (The text calls her “Canaanite” but people from that area today are called “Lebanese.”) The Gospel accounts depict Jesus as someone with room in his heart for every person, regardless of their life circumstances. Jesus is unfailingly generous to outsiders and outcasts in the Gospel narratives — except for in this story, where we encounter highly uncharacteristic words of rejection from Jesus.

Running into trouble with Jesus

The Gentile woman comes shouting her appeal to Jesus. Jesus is ordinarily unperturbed by people trying to accost him with shouts, yet Jesus’ disciples predictably try to get rid of her, as they have done with others who they think are being inappropriate in trying to get to Jesus. But unlike other instances when Jesus rebukes his disciples for turning people away, this time Jesus joins them in resisting her approach. He pushes back against her first theologically, then culturally.

Jesus’ first objection is that his ministry is aimed only at the house of Israel. This echoes Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10, where he directs them to avoid Gentiles and Samaritans in their itinerant ministry. Yet such instructions counter what Jesus says and does with the Roman centurion we discussed two weeks ago (Luke 7:1-10). Samaritans are engaged and extolled by Jesus repeatedly in the other Gospels, though not in the book of Matthew. Still, even in Matthew, Jesus quotes Scriptures affirming that Gentiles will be included in the work of the Messiah (See Matthew 12:21). So this passage presents a theological dilemma about the scope of Jesus’ mission.

His second objection is cultural and even more difficult to hear, as Jesus likens her to a dog in the presence of children. Aren’t all people God’s children? Such language about people who aren’t part of our circle is all too common in social groups and is ordinarily used mainly to boost ourselves. But Jesus never showed any interest in boosting himself, so why use language like this?

The story ends with Jesus praising the woman’s great faith. Did he change his mind about her that quickly, or was his reference to dogs not a put-down at all, but an opening for her to demonstrate the persistence of her faith?

Ready to wrestle

According to our text, the mother convinces Jesus to do what he doesn’t initially intend. Some commentators suggest that he was being provocative or playful in his early rejoinders to her, but the plain reading of the text is that he was resisting her. Genesis 32 tells the story of Jacob wrestling with the Lord to get the blessing he desperately needed. And Jesus tells a parable of a woman repeatedly nagging a judge to get her just due, then likens that to how we should approach God when we pray for justice (Luke 18:1-8). The Lebanese woman has a good warrant to wrestle with Jesus when he seems to be pushing her off.

The power of intercession

Each miracle story in this month’s lessons tells of people being healed because others went to Jesus on their behalf. In this story, the girl who needs healing has the most powerful intercessor of all, a mother who won’t take no for an answer. Earlier we looked at a centurion pleading for his slave and at a group of friends breaking through barriers to get a paralytic in front of Jesus.

Intercession, as demonstrated in these stories, is not a long-distance call, but a deep up-close investment in the welfare of someone near us. It is based on, and an expression of, community solidarity. We can’t intercede for those with whom we are unwilling to take risks, go to the mat, or risk looking foolish ourselves to benefit them.

Jesus clarifies that what makes those who suffer whole is not his super-power or benevolence, but the faith of their intercessors. The sufferers are minor figures in the stories, their intercessors are the main characters. Because of their community’s active faith, those who suffer are healed.

Questions for discussion

  1. Tell about a time when you encountered a person advocating for, or a community rallying around people who suffered. How did it affect those going to the mat for the welfare of their friends?

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