Syro-Phoenician woman – Trinity 11 2023
The story we have just heard would make a powerful scene in a film. Jesus has gone out of his home territory into an alien area. A woman appears and starts shouting, going on about her daughter. In the actual Greek of the gospel story, she shouts what we have just sung – Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy. Jesus is downbeat, unresponsive – he keeps his head down. But this woman is not to be stopped. She’s seen something about him and it has gripped her. She rushes up and falls on her knees before Jesus and says out loud, “help me”.
Jesus now can hardly ignore her – and what does he reply? He says, pretty rudely, “It’s not good to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” How offensive can you get? She is a Canaanite, and for Jews that meant the worst kind of heathen, and they called them dogs. But when we look more closely the word used for “dogs” is diminutive – it could be translated “doggies”. Is Jesus saying these words with a smile? A loving smile? She in her turn gives as good as she gets, and we’ll say more about that in a minute.
But 1st of all I want to digress. While I was still at school I sensed a call to the priesthood. I went to see our elderly vicar, Canon John Quarterman, who had been one of the 1st students of our college, and would have been taught by Walter Frere and other early brethren, and he looked at me and said, “you can’t – you’re not good enough”. I can’t remember anything else about the interview, apart from going out of the door determined not to take that for an answer.
It was a very monastic reply. The Rule of St Benedict says “do not grant newcomers to the monastic life and easy entry” … “If someone comes and keeps knocking at the door, and if at the end of 4 or 5 days he has shown himself patient in bearing his harsh treatment and difficulty of entry, and has persisted in his request, then he should be allowed to enter and stay … for a few days”. This for St Benedict was part of the process of testing of spirits. And in this story in Matthew we can see that Jesus is lovingly testing the spirit of this bold and spirited woman in a way that he thinks she can bear, and even in a way that she can give him, as they say in swordfighting, Touché. Even the dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table. Touché.
That reply has various monastic characteristics. 1st of all, she is willing to swallow everything in order to have life for her daughter and therefore for herself. To swallow all her pride, all herself-centredness. She is an example of humility on which Benedict writes so much in his Rule’s 7th chapter.
Secondly, Jesus sets the way the thing is to be approached, and she accepts it – she works within his terms. Life in a religious community is a lifetime’s schooling in mutual submission, in leaving behind all our instincts for battle and self-assertion, and for most of us this is the process of a lifetime. The exchange between Jesus and the woman is very like those salty sayings of the Desert Fathers – the wisdom of the monastic tradition coming out in unexpected and slightly shocking or off-beam ways.
Jesus is a consummate spiritual director – he is no walkover, and the paths he takes can be unexpected, a bit rum, and always searching. He wrestles with us in ways we don’t expect. On the one hand he does it always within our abilities and what we are capable of, But on the other hand he stretches us – he shows us that there is more to ourselves than we realised. In her exchange with Jesus this woman finds herself behaving in a way she had quite probably not expected of herself. In the Tablet last week a leading article said that Jesus’ life and ministry is attractive in all its mystery, tragedy and glory – Jesus is magnetically attractive. The Syro-Phoenician woman had picked up the magnetism. She had never met him, but there is another word in her response which shows what effect he had on her – she calls him “Master”. She calls this complete stranger Master because she can see it in him. Her cheeky response shows as well that this master is very human – human enough to love anybone he encounters, human enough to take with the utmost seriousness this woman kneeling before him, and to recognize in her a mother anguished about her daughter.
When we pray to Christ, we could learn a thing or two from this woman.
And as we live our daily lives, we can learn a thing or two from Jesus, the shepherd of souls. He calls us and is with us, seeking to lead us forward so often into things we had not expected.