Persistence and Faith
Bible Text: Matthew 15:21-28, Romans 11:33-36, Matthew 14:22-36 | Preacher: Revd. Emma Street |
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
Paul’s doxology (Rom 11:33-36) invites us to stand on the highest cliff, lingering on the unfathomable vastness of God, from whom and through whom and for whom are ALL things. Yet our lectionary does not let us linger on that lofty vista for long. Our Gospel reading (Matt 15:21-28) brings us back down into the crowd following Jesus, and a woman kneeling and pleading before him.
In her seemingly defiant exchange with Jesus, this woman does seek to search his judgements, presumes to know his mind, and certainly seems to counsel him. In return the Lord calls out her ‘great faith’.
At first this seems to be a strange, sexist, disturbingly ethnocentric story, that many preachers might skip over in favour of the full Romans text (Rom 11:13-36), or perhaps the Old Testament story of Joseph’s gracious reconciliation with the brothers who sold him in to slavery (Gen 45:1-15).
Perhaps more disturbing, in the way that Jesus seems to dismiss the needs of a non-Israelite, is that it seems to challenge our own non-Jewish understanding of God as Paul’s God of ALL. A God to whom ALL lives matter. OUR God.
Central to our faith is the understanding our own fleeting life, no matter how inconsequential among all the other lives, is significant and precious to this great, omnipotent God. Jesus loves me, I know, because the Bible tells me so.
Comparing her, and her kind, to a dog is an insult which has not lost its sting over two millennia. How can this be our God of love and mercy?
The commentator Rev. Dr. Joy J. Moore says she struggles to read this text as a ‘black’ ‘woman’. Finding it hard to identify with the picture of “a Lord who would need one of us humans to remind him that they too were created in the image of the one he claims to be the son of.”
This particularly unsettles me, because there seem to be many Christians in this world who read their Bible very seriously and believe very faithfully, who don’t seem to see a God for ALL. There seem to be Christians who can live with, or even justify, inequality and inequity, and who can live with the suffering of others without too much discomfort. I wonder if it is these seemingly harsh and discriminatory words Matthew brings to Jesus’ lips which help inform that position.
Thankfully, it does us good to linger on the text with Paul’s sureness of the wisdom and knowledge of God. Ultimately, we see there is no discrimination here, at least not from God’s perspective.
This is a story of great faith and perseverance. A story not unlike that of another unnamed ‘woman’ reaching desperately through the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe in order to be healed. (Matt 9:19-22, Mark 5:24-34, Luke 8:42-28). Both seemingly alone in a deep understanding and connection with Jesus.
Another unsettling aspect of both of these stories is that the women appear to catch Jesus off guard. Today’s, ordinary, human, unnamed woman, seems to push against Jesus’ own understanding of the limits of his ministry. The other, known to history as the ‘bleeding woman’, literally taking power from Jesus. Causing him to turn around in the crowd and ask, “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:30). What a strange idea that one can take from God without his knowing.
Thus, I find myself unsettled at the idea that Jesus could have these moments in ministry where his isn’t so in control. Perhaps he seems a little less wise and large in these moments. What do we make of that?
We start with recognising the peril of contemplating small sections of Scripture in isolation from the larger story in which the Gospel writer places them. A little bit of Paul’s sureness in the knowledge and wisdom is helpful too.
If we look at this text within the broader arc of Matthew’s Gospel, it is all about faith. Matthew’s first aim is that all readers are absolutely sure that Jesus is the Messiah. So much so that the Gospel begins with a genealogy to firmly establish Jesus’ Messianic pedigree. Once belief in Jesus as the Son of God is secure, the rest of the story can progressively upend and ‘shake up’ expectations of how a Messiah should behave.
In last week’s Gospel reading (Matt 14:22-36), we were with the disciples caught in a boat during a storm, with Jesus and Peter walking on the waves. There Matthew presented a picture of named men, Jewish, insiders, part of a special group handpicked to travel with, and learn from Jesus. They have already witnessed miracles and been given special insight into the meaning of the parables. Who better to understand Jesus, Son of David? Yet, we find them afraid and unsure in the storm, not sure they even recognise Jesus, who calls out Peter’s ‘little faith.’
Today, we are brought to a contrasting place with an unnamed, gentile, woman. If the disciples are in the ‘inner circle’, then this woman represents those who are on the outer circle. Jesus’ words seem to affirm that.
This woman on the outside, without any of Peter’s privileged information, seems to see something that Peter cannot. In her calling out to Jesus as ‘Lord, Son of David’ Matthew gives Jewish language to the gentile. She has properly recognised and understood who Jesus is. This transition from Peter in the storm, to a defiant gentile woman, will connect us to next week’s Gospel reading from Chap 16 when Jesus will ask Peter, “Who do you say I am?” (Matt 16:15). We should think of this Canaanite woman as we ponder his response.
This woman understands and believes who Jesus is. Not only understood as the Messiah of the Israelite’s, but also in the sort of Messiah he is. A Messiah she knows can heal her daughter. She understands that God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel is also a blessing to everyone else.
The key to this story is the example of the power of both faith and persistence. This woman is persistent. She refuses to be silenced by the disciples, or dismissed by Jesus. This contrasts with Peter, whose faith is sure, but persistence is his challenge. He will one day be famously silent when challenged.
In standing her ground this woman seems to say to Jesus: ‘hey, that living water that you are offering is so plentiful, there is more than enough of that to go around. I am not asking for special status, advantage, or a special seat at the table. I just need enough to heal my daughter.’
Jesus responds “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” Her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matt 15:28).
Jesus does not say let it be done as you believed but as you will. The woman’s will, demonstrated by her persistence, is identified with her faith, and leads to her daughter’s healing. Once again, we might look back at Peter floundering in the water. “Lord, if it’s you,” said Peter, “tell me to come to you on the water.” (Matt 14:28) Peter was drawn out onto the water not by his own will, but by Jesus. Jesus will always be drawing us to him, but if it is not matched by our own will – persistent, commitment – our faith will be weak.
We can conclude that Matthew is not offering us the story of a woman having to convince Jesus of our value, or remind him of his mission. We might look at it as a more tender moment, not unlike the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Here, an intimate exchange where Jesus offers the same challenge of faith to a faithful woman as he offered to the disciples out in the boat.
We are left to ponder whether faith fuels persistence or persistence feeds faith. Either way, persistence and faith make a powerful pair. There is none more persistent or faithful than the one who go the cross for our salvation.
This makes it a particularly good text to dwell on today. In unusual times, when we are needing both faith and persistence to navigate through the a challenging world, and as the very long journey we are taking with COVID19 takes its toll. We must persist and adapting to be God’s people and understand his wisdom in these times. Thankful for the great blessing of good health, and the relative safety Canberra currently offers.
Let our will be strong and the word live in us.
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen