Sermon text is below, or a video of it can be found at the 8th minute on the YouTube recording here: “Challenging Jesus” 

 Matthew 15:21-28

“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

When you hear this gospel story of the Canaanite woman—I wonder what words you hear?

Is it the Canaanite women pleading: “Lord, Son of David, My daughter is tormented by a demon.”Is it the disciples urging Jesus to “Send her away! She is shouting at us.” Is it Jesus, shockingly, calling the woman a dog? He does. Or, do you hear the woman argue back with Jesus—”yes, lord, but what about the crumbs, don’t we dogs even get to have the crumbs?”

There are 93 women who speak in the bible. Lindsey Freeman counted them. 93.

A friend recently told me about Freeman’s book entitled, Bible Women—all their words and why they matter. Freeman, an Episcopal priest by the way, remarks that this number may seem small. However, she says, it’s hard to think of any other historical document that quotes almost 100 women from throughout the ages. Both this week’s lessons and next tell the story of women, very different women, and the contrast is fascinating.  

Today’s woman, Matthew tells us, is a Canaanite. Jesus and his followers had ventured into Tyre and Sidon, so no surprise they encounter non-Jewish persons there. This woman had heard of the healer named Jesus and though well aware of her standing amongst these Jewish men, and still she comes forward, revering Jesus, calling him Lord, Son of David. We don’t know this woman’s name. Besides her nationality, all we know is that she is a mother with a sick daughter.  And like any other mother I’ve ever known, her motherhood makes her brave on behalf of her child. Some may think of her as brazen, to approach a Jewish man so boldly out in the street; we know she is certainly annoying to the disciples.

Of all the 1.1 million words in the Bible, women’s words add up to a little over 14,000, or about 1.2 percent of the total number of words. Meaning men grabbed about 99% of the airtime. Women in the bible are healers, warriors, business leaders, diplomats, musicians and prophets, prostitutes, and murderers. This woman was just a mother, with no power, no station in life, and yet she is the only person in the New Testament who counters Jesus with an argument in which he admits he was wrong—or he at least changes his mind.

It’s hard for us to comprehend just how different society was in the 1st century, when Jesus lived, but consider this: Women were not regarded as equal to men before the law; they could not vote or stand for office, women had no formal role in public life. widows with no sons were often were left bereft and divorced women were destitute,  Women were valued mainly as wives and mothers. 

Rob and I just finished watching the short Netflix series named, UNORTHODOX, —story inspired by memoir of a Jewish woman in this century, Deborah Feldman, who left her ultra-orthodox community to pursue her dreams, to be free from the strict rules and confinement that she’d endured. This story get us a bit closer to seeing the value of women in 1st century Judaism, and their lack of power.

Main character in UNORTHODOX is a girl named Esty—her formal name is Esther, a main character of the Jewish faith—maybe you’ve read the book of Esther in the bible. It is controversial, almost didn’t make it into the canon, as it never mentions God. In any case, biblical Esther with her beauty and shrewdness, saved the Jewish people exiled with her in Persia. Esty, the 19-year-old in the television series we watched, is not a hero, at least not to her community. Feeling she is in an impossible situation, with no choice to pursue a life she wants for herself, quietly leaves the community to find her own life and goes to Berlin. I’ll let you tune in to watch the series—it is informative, but mostly it’s a great story of love and self-discovery. Esty is a little like our gospel woman today, she had no voice in society, but this woman’s situation was lower. Matthew uses the outdated term, Canaanite, to describe her—it’s the only time that word is ever used in the New Testament. The same story in Mark’s  gospel tells us she is a Syrophoenician women, marking her a Gentile, But Matthew makes a point to tell us this woman is Canaanite. This puts her in the enemy camp—Canaanites were the ancient enemies of the Hebrews. Israel conquered them and took over their land. Israel looked down upon the Canaanites, despising their paganism. Matthew is telling his audience this woman is not one of us—in modern language we’d say, she is “the other,” destined to always be an outsider.

Often, we think of the stories in the bible as we’d tell stories: Here’s what happened one day—but stories in scripture are crafted and arranged in careful order to make the listener interact with the characters and to follow a train of thought. Matthew does this well. The story of the lowly Canaanite woman functions as a bit of a riddle, an puzzling interchange to be figured out.

In other words, we should read this story and work to understand its rhetoric and its ethical nature; Just how did people argue in Jesus day—what if they are of different stations in life, does the interaction change? How does one argue respectfully, and win your argument? What we see in this story shows a woman challenging the status quo. Jesus’ actions and his words are jarring at first—some say he was testing her; more likely, this story just bares truth to all of his humanity, he challenges the woman back. And she in turn makes a brilliant retort. She appeals not to Jesus the man, but to Jesus’ divinity. The woman speaks Jesus own teaching, reminding every hearer of the abundance of food on the earth, enough to satisfy both Jews and Gentiles. This brave woman challenges Jesus to live up to his promise of God’s saving presence.

Much to the surprise of the disciples, and perhaps us, Jesus replies not in anger as if to say who are you to argue with me. No, Jesus states, “Woman, great is your faith!”  Jesus validates this Gentile woman, he pays tribute to her though she’s a Canaanite. The story is a surprise not only because Jesus engages her in conversation, but he gives her what she’s requested, and he praises her faith. The disciples must have been dumbfounded.

Of all the lessons we hear in the bible on faith, this one recurs over and over: that is, Faith involves persistence. Joseph persisted in his faith even when thrown into a pit and hauled off to Egypt. Moses persists 40 years in the desert with God’s most stubborn people.  Job’s persistence with his friends and in his arguments with God allows gives him back his life. And this Canaanite woman, she persisted, and is rewarded for her doggedness.

She believed she too is valued in the eyes of God and Jesus agreed. It matters not your gender, or your ethnicity, or your social class or any manmade classification that humans have drudged up to give some power over others. Speak up, this story teaches us, and approach the One who came to save us from ourselves. God values your faithful persistence—now go, live into this life and recognize with thankfulness all that God has given you—live with spunk, resolve, and ambition to do something meaningful with your life. This is being faithful.

Thanks be to God.