A Reluctant Jesus and a Woman with Great Faith
After sending them home, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone. Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water.
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
August 18, 2023, Words By: Lina Thompson, Image By: unknown
This gospel passage (Matthew 15:21-28) is both hopeful and frustrating. Hopeful if you can see the Canaanite Woman as a model of great faith AND frustrating that Jesus didn’t see it sooner.
It’s hard to watch the scene play out, to watch one who is in need of mercy have to beg for mercy. She, the Canaanite woman, whose daughter is suffering from demon possession, comes NOT asking for healing for her daughter — or even for an exorcism.
“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And then she proceeds to tell Jesus about her daughter.
She knows who he is and she is calling forth what she knows to be true… at the end of the day, he is a God of mercy. From my vantage point, it feels like the unnamed Canaanite woman actually knew more about Jesus and his mission than he did. She either knew, or didn’t care, that her status should not preclude her request for mercy. She is holding Jesus accountable to who he is.
Unfortunately, and this is tough to see, Jesus dismisses her. It is confusing, especially when we are predisposed to always see Jesus as doing what is right. At this moment, it seems unclear if he does, at least from the reader’s perspective.
It is hard to note that Jesus was silent at first. At least outwardly, he seems unmoved. He doesn’t acknowledge her OR her request for mercy in any real way. What is going on here?
To have someone’s dire need or significant request for help fall flat is a painful thing to witness. There’s nothing quite as dehumanizing as being dismissed — becoming a non-person simply because of who you are — in this case, a Canaanite woman.
Even the disciples pile on, telling Jesus to send her away. She is shouting after them. They are annoyed — by her persistence or volume, or both. The more she persists, the more intrigued I am. If I’m honest, I find myself rooting for her…and it’s weird to think that by doing so, I am rooting for Jesus too! That he will see what she needs. That their relationship will be made whole.
Marginalized people everywhere know what this feels like. To be the one who is shouting for justice, for help, for mercy, for equitable treatment. To be the one who is looking and hoping that a group of those in power might actually take you seriously and not dismiss you just because they cannot relate to your request for mercy.
That’s what this woman represents for me. Her unwavering belief in Jesus and in the mercy that she knows is there. She calls it forth. It’s quite dramatic, and for me, it is ALL GOOD NEWS.
She knows Jesus’ story. After all, she’s Caannite — As Mitzi Smith writes, “Her people’s blood runs through his veins.” There is a shared humanity that she knows about and that she is leveraging. Great strategy. In communities everywhere, women are pleading for us to find our common-ness. Our shared humanity. We are not free until all are free. We cannot experience the fullness of life until all experience the fullness of life.
Her plea for mercy is rooted in this solidarity of common humanity as God’s children. That commonality doesn’t negate cultural differences that exist between her and Jesus. When he tells her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” she recognizes the analogy. In Jesus’ community, the dogs ate second. But her faith is persistent. It pushes against that cultural norm, and she reminds him there is a third way — Canaanites allowed their pets to be fed WHILE the children eat. You can do both. Not everything has to be presented as an either-or. Her great faith is persistent, calling forth the truth in the midst of cultural norms rooted in a binary way of thinking.
Women like her are amazing gifts in community. Our communities are filled with women who are uniquely able to find common ground for the sake of mercy. And to hold steadfast in the face of being dismissed, pushed away, diminished.
At the end of the day, Jesus recognized all of this as “great faith,” in contrast to Peter’s “little faith” one chapter earlier. Her way of interacting with God is held up as an example for all of us.
I know for some of us, it’s blasphemous to suggest that Jesus is the one who was changed. I don’t know any other way to read this, but I realize there’s a lot of theological discussion about it in the scholarly ranks. But regardless of where you and I might disagree in our interpretation, what’s clear is that the one who seemingly had very little power in this story ends up being an example of great faith that moved Jesus. May we all learn from her persistence.
“Never underestimate the power of a persistent woman and the God in whom she believes. “ – Mitzi Smith.
When have you experienced calling out for Jesus to show mercy?
Are there people in your community that remind you of this woman? What would “mercy” look like for them?