by Fr. Mike Stubbs
When faced with serious disease, people will sometimes turn to desperate measures. They may seek cures from practitioners of alternative medicine, less politely known as quacks. They may try experimental drugs. They will do anything to save the life of their loved one.
When the mother of a seriously ill girl in the region of Tyre and Sidon, modern-day Lebanon, heard about the wonderful healer who was visiting, she decided to turn to him for help. Her decision was motivated by love for her daughter. But because the healer in question was Jesus, her decision becomes a story of faith. We will hear that story as Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 15:21-28. It demonstrates the persistence of faith.
The woman overcomes many obstacles in seeking a cure for her daughter. First of all, we repeat, she is a woman. That in itself is a strike against her in this highly patriarchal society.
But over and beyond that, she is not Jewish. In fact, Matthew departs from Mark’s version of the same story to describe her as Canaanite. In using this antiquated term, he emphasizes her pagan identity and associates her with the original inhabitants of the Promised Land, who centuries earlier had been enemies of the Israelite settlers.
But the obstacles do not stop there. The woman encounters hostility from Jesus’ disciples, who are guarding Jesus from unwanted attention. They complain to Jesus: “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
Perhaps the greatest obstacle, though, comes from Jesus himself. First he gives her the silent treatment: “Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.” Finally, Jesus states his conviction that God wants to restrict his ministry to the Jewish people: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Jesus even insults her with a remark that places her and her fellow Gentiles on the level of dogs, compared to the Jews, who are children of God: “It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs.” This remark does not show Jesus in the best light. It reflects the xenophobia of his society, rather than his true nature.
Instead of reacting with anger at this insult, however, the woman responds with great wit: “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their master.”
The woman’s persistence earns her Jesus’ respect and her daughter’s healing. He exclaims: “O woman, great is your faith!”
At the same time, we remember that love for her daughter has motivated all the woman’s actions. If she were dealing with a physician, rather than with Jesus, would we still call her persistence faith? I think not. It would still be praiseworthy, but not attain the level of faith.
It is God’s grace that has put her in contact with Jesus, rather than with some other healer. It is God’s grace that has transformed the love for her daughter into faith in Jesus Christ. God’s grace, and the mother’s love, have joined to bring her to Christ.