The stand out story from the A level results has to be the story of Malala Yousafzai – a young woman who puts the achievement of all A level students into perspective. I’m sure many of us will be familiar with her story. At the age of 14 she was on the bus on her way to school with her friends, a school set up by her Father specifically for girls in the Swat region of Pakistan, who under the Taliban regime were not entitled to an education and had no access to schools. Armed gunmen stormed the school bus and shot Malala in the head and injured two of her school friends. She was lucky to survive and had to undergo multiple surgeries on her brain. It was a long recovery but, she settled into life in Birmingham, returned to school and achieved the grades needed to study PPE at Oxford this year.
Malala – a woman classed as an inferior citizen with no right to the human dignity of a decent education. A woman who no one would have said was destined for study at Oxford University.
Matthew 15 – gives us a record that is entitled in most versions of the Bible “The Faith of the Canaanite Woman”. She is not Malala. But we have a similar kind of story here in the gospel. The story of a woman from a poor, marginalised and forgotten region of the world; classified as inferior with no right to enter the presence of a Jewish rabbi. A woman who was born into obscurity, not destined to be held up as a person of great faith. But, she turns her circumstances around in a dramatic way and ends up as role model of faith in the most popular and widely read book in the whole of history.
This is a story of a woman who will forever be remembered for her remarkable faith. A faith that overcame the odds. A faith that challenged the racial marginalisation and prejudice that hindered and weakened her community. A faith that overcame gender based discrimination and political oppression. A faith that is characterised by courage, boldness and sincerity.
The location for this story is Tyre and Sidon a region outside of Judah and the Jewish areas of Israel. It was gentile territory. Jesus, it seems, has gone there to get away from his people, get away from the demands of those needing his help and those from the religious establishment continuously challenging and harassing his ministry.
Tyre and Sidon was his place of retreat and rest from the normal demands of life faced by the Son of God – this was his holiday season. His “out of office” had been set on his email and his phone was on silent. This was his time to escape and recharge.
For the woman though, she saw this as her moment. She is in desperate need. Her daughter is suffering from mental and spiritual torment. It’s difficult to appreciate exactly what the problem was, but, it was clearly a significant and terrifying condition and her mother was at her wits end dealing with it.
This woman had heard about Jesus, I’m sure most people had – his wonderful teaching, his ability to stand up to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, his wonderful miracles of feeding 5000, even walking on water. This was an intelligent woman who, on the basis of all she’d heard about Jesus knew that he could and would be able to help her. She had the intelligence and courage to sincerely believe that if Jesus knew about her daughter he would be able and willing to do something to help.
Somehow her conviction and faith overcame the standard protocols, racial prejudice and social stigmas of the day and she believed that those things were secondary in importance to Jesus. She knew he was a man of compassion and spiritual authority not bound and hindered by the normal conventions.
How we need woman like this in our society today.
Not just women. But Women and Men who are able to discern what is of true value and importance. Women and Men who are willing to step over convention, tear down prejudice and demonstrate faith in such a way that lives and communities are changed.
I came across a woman like this myself about 8 years ago when I first went to Musoma in Tanzania. Her name is Rhobi Samwelly. At the time she was working for the Anglican church in Mara Diocese on development projects in rural communities around the Serengetti region of Tanzania. Nowadays she can be found at Safe House which she has set up in the bush. The safe house is for young girls who are fleeing the horrors of Female Genital Mutilation FGM. With the support of her diocese and Christian sponsors from around the world she managed to gather the resources to build a house, purchase a bus and set up a school. Her Safe House is a refuge for girls who have had to leave home before the cutting season. Protecting children who don’t want to be viciously violated through the horrors of FGM.
Rhobi is a sensation, and has been widely reported on the BBC and other global news outlets. A film is being made at the moment which will tell her story further and help protect these vulnerable young girls and bring to an end the awful practice of FGM.
Rhobi’s faith – her courage, boldness and sincerity are to me a modern day example of the Canaanite woman in our gospel.
The challenge for us from this story is to stop and take a look at our faith.
Are we hindered and hampered by social convention; prejudice and inequality or circumstance. Or, like Malala, like Rhobi, like the Canaanite woman are we courageous enough to step over the barriers and reach out to God in such a way that releases compassion, releases healing power, releases God’s kingdom into our world.
It would have been too easy for the Canaanite woman to have hid in the shadows; discouraged and demoralised by the sneering disciples who want to silence her and get her out of the way. Her faith wouldn’t allow her to keep silent. Her faith in Jesus’ compassion and spiritual authority led her out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Well, so much for the Woman of Faith. What about Jesus?
I know some of us feel uncomfortable when we read this story as it appears to portray a very mixed picture:
- on the one hand Jesus is compassionate and kind in the way he reaches out and responds to the woman and her daughter
- but, on the other hand Jesus appears harsh and cold when he says, in v 26 “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”
- that’s quite a shocking statement. But, some translators see it as a question rather than a statement…perhaps he is asking “is it fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?” There’s no punctuation marks in the original greek text – so perhaps its not too far fetched to believe that Jesus was asking a provocative question.
It’s an uncomfortable read but, I truly believe that Jesus is simply teasing the audience and using the dialogue to shame the disciples for their judgmental attitude.
Just a few verses earlier in the chapter Jesus has already publicly condemned the Pharisees and Scribes for their hypocrisy by saying “These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men”
Jesus knows there are some things that are more important than rules, traditions and conventions. He demonstrates time and again through his teaching and ministry that compassion and justice; mercy and grace characterize his kingdom. It is one of the marks of his true greatness that he allows compassion for people to overrule social convention and religious taboos. He won’t allow the love of God’s kingdom to be fenced in. In Jesus there is freedom from convention and grace for the outsider.
So there’s learning here about the great man himself.
But, really this story is about the courageous faith of a woman. The faith of somebody who people believed to be a nobody, overcoming everybody and leaving us an example of great faith to follow.
Let’s not be left unchanged by this woman this morning. Let’s be inspired. Let’s not listen to those who might say you or I are nobody.
Let’s not accept the labels given to us or to others on the margins of society today. Let’s be inspired by this humble Canaanite woman whose courageous and sincere faith has been recorded for all time.
Peter is team rector of the Ravensbourne Team of Churches.
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