Friday, 18 August 2017

The Canaanite Woman’s Faith

Matthew 15.21-28 (NRSV)

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

In the earlier verses of chapter 15, the question arose: ‘What is it that defiles?’ Here Jesus is dealing with the issue of Jews and Gentiles.  J C Fenton suggests that the two issues are connected, because the Jews at the time believed that in order not to be defiled, they needed to keep themselves separate from the Gentiles. Eventually the Church came to understand that in Jesus, the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles had been broken down – a reference to Ephesians 2.11-22.

The Ephesians passage has particular significance for me. It became the motto of our little multi-racial Presbyterian Church in South Africa, where my father was the session clerk and which I attended from its inception in 1962 – the first of its kind in South Africa. The logo was a broken wall with the text underneath and it appeared on our first hymn book which included hymns and songs in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, published using a spirit printer and an old Olivetti typewriter, with translations happening on the hoof! (My 84 year old mother in Cheshire still has one on her bookshelf). My parents used to break curfew and have black, coloured and Asian friends over for meals and Bible studies. We were a small fellowship, and we were often infiltrated by the Special Branch (they were so obvious) but the witness of being part of this fellowship until I was 12 years old (1969) has been long-lasting.

The Ephesians passage is also special to me because I did an exposition on this passage on Christmas Day 1993 to over 700 people (two sittings), at the Jeffreys Bay Methodist Church – before the first democratic elections the following April.

This story was probably used by the early Church when there were discussions as to whom should be allowed to become members of the Church and so Paul wrote to the Ephesians and also to the Galatians (3.28). The message is also implied in 2 Corinthians 5.17 – all key texts as we challenged the Apartheid South Africa.

The disciples tried to send the Canaanite woman away – just as later Jewish Christians would oppose preaching to the Gentiles and in fact to have any contact with them (Acts 11.1ff). Jesus admitted that he had not gone beyond Israel in his own ministry – I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – but it is clear from passages like this that the Gospel is – as we Methodist stress – for all.

John Meier has some interesting thoughts on this reading ...

Jesus has just torn down the wall of laws about clean and unclean which kept Jews and Gentiles apart, now he acts out his teaching in one of the few contacts with a Gentile. This occasion is similar to the one with the Centurion (8.5-13). But note how the Gentile here addresses Jesus as Lord. Jesus responds to this faith as well as her humility. This is an important reminder for me. It is all too easy to become complacent, even presumptuous about our contact with God.

Mark refers to a Syrophoenician woman; Matthew changes this to ‘Canaanite’ –which conjures up the Old Testament image of the early enemies of the Jews. But her use of the titles Lord and Son of David shows that she believes that Jesus is the promised Messiah who has been rejected by his own people. Jesus remains silent at first; the annoyed disciples want to get rid of her and Jesus breaks the silence to say that his mission was limited to Israel which needed to be saved because they were like lost sheep. The woman persists.

Whenever I read the parable that follows, on my liberal western ears it sounds harsh and uncharacteristic of our Lord; it comes across to my modern ears as rude and almost racist. True, Jews did treat Gentiles with disrespect and sometimes referred to them as dogs; but I find it difficult coming from the mouth of our Lord. But Meier offers some interesting observations as he paraphrases the woman’s response where she agrees with the parable, but turns it to her advantage:

‘Yes Lord, your statement of priorities is correct, and as a Gentile I acknowledge the rights and privileges of Israel; indeed the Jews are admitted to be the “masters” of the pagans. Yet, precisely on the terms of your parable I have hope; sooner or later some crumbs will inadvertently fall from the table to the floor, to be snapped up by the dogs.’

Jesus cannot be convinced by any claims or even merit, ‘... but he is overcome by the prayer of faith, expressed with humility and humour.’

It was faith that gave the first Gentiles access to our Lord – both to healing and salvation – and so the woman’s daughter was healed.

Once more I am caused to pause and think about my presumption as I relate to our Lord, and am touched by this tender encounter.

Barclay suggests that there are a number of things worth noting about the Canaanite woman. (i) She was filled with love, having made the misery of her child her own. Our love for our children is always a reflection of God’s love for us, His children. We will do anything for our children, and it was her love that, realising that she would probably be shunned, or even treated harshly and unfairly, that spurred her on. It was probably also love that enabled her to see our Lord’s compassion beneath his strange initial response to her request. Barclay adds: ‘... there is nothing stronger and nothing nearer God than love ...’

(ii) This woman also had faith: Her faith grew when she made contact with Jesus. She began by calling him Son of David – which was a popular, political title and the way of seeing Jesus as a great and powerful wonder-worker – but it was a title which looked on Jesus in terms of earthly power and glory. Initially she came for help to a powerful man. But she ends by calling him Lord. It was as though Jesus forced her to look more closely and to see more, the divine. Jesus wanted her to ‘... see that a request to a great man must be turned into a prayer to the living God ...’ and her faith grew in her confrontation and drew her to worship – she begins with a request and ends with a prayer.

The woman also had indomitable persistence – and could not be discouraged. It is suggested that some people pray, not really expecting anything to happen. But the woman knew that Jesus was her only hope and so was in deadly earnest. Her prayer was a passionate outpouring of her soul – she had no choice. This reminds me of that tender moment in Shadowlands the story of the relationship between C S Lewis and Joy Davidson. On her death, Lewis was grief-stricken and also said that he prayed because he had no choice, it was just something that flowed through and from him.

The woman also had the gift of cheerfulness: she was in the middle of trouble, but still kept her sense of humour. Jesus loved this light of hope. She brought with it all great love and together with her faith, found an answer to her prayers.

This is how philosopher Dallas Willard puts it, as he defines exactly what is a disciple: "One of those who have trusted Jesus with their whole life, so far as they understand it. Because they've done so, they want to learn everything he has to teach them about life in the kingdom of God now and forever, and they're constantly with him to learn this. Disciples of Jesus are those learning to be like him" (Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, 241).

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Jesus walks on water

Matthew 14.22-33 (NRSV)
Jesus Walks on the Water
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind,* he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Barclay offers the following thoughts:

After the feeding of the 5000, Jesus sent his disciples away. Matthew stresses that Jesus ‘made’ i.e. compelled them to embark on the boat and go on ahead. John’s account of this event gives us further insight. John suggests that the crowds, after the feeding of the 5000, wanted to make Jesus their king by force (John 6.15). This was completely out of line with how Jesus saw his ministry and it is possible that his fickle disciples might have complicated matters still further. Jesus needed to be alone and deal with the situation alone. He did not want to involve the disciples.

When Jesus was alone, he went up the mountain to pray. As the night progressed, there was a sudden storm – not uncommon in this region. Jesus eventually began to walk around the lake to reach the other side. It was probably spring time and full moon and so Jesus would have been able to see the plight of the disciples and they would have been able to see him.

But did Jesus actually walk on the water or did it look as though he was? Barclay suggests that the Greek could mean that he was or that he was walking towards the water. It is not impossible that Jesus did walk on the water, because we know of other natural miracles that Jesus performed. It is also possible that the storm had blown the boat toward the northern shore and that Jesus was walking through the surf to help them. But, as Barclay suggests, whatever explanation one prefers is of little consequence because the meaning and significance of this passage remains perfectly clear. And this is that, in times of need, Jesus comes to us. When life is a struggle, Jesus is there to help us.

The reality of our lives is that we often have to face ‘winds of trouble’. When these times happen, we do not have to face them alone, because Jesus comes to us through the storms of life, ‘... with hand stretched to save, and with his calm clear voice bidding us to be of good courage, and not to be afraid.’

This is what matters and what all Christians can testify to the truth of and that is in the storms of life, we never need to face them alone, for Jesus always comes to us, helps us and even blesses us in the process.

I continue with the aid of Barclay for a while longer.

There is no passage in the New Testament that reveals the character of Peter better; it tells us three things about Peter:

Firstly, he was given to acting on impulse and without thinking about what he was doing. He did this again when he vowed unswerving loyalty to Jesus before our Lord’s arrest, only to deny him soon afterwards. Peter’s troubled was that he was ruled by his heart, but this does not mean that his heart was always wrong, in fact his heart was always right, because his instinct was always to love.

Secondly, Jesus wants us always to face every situation, sometimes in all its grimness, before we act. Jesus was always completely honest and wants us to see how difficult it is to follow him. Peter needed to learn that it is not a good idea to act on the emotional moment without counting the cost first. He eventually learned this lesson.

Thirdly, whenever Peter failed, he clung on to Christ and so was able to rise again. His failures brought him closer to Christ. Barclay suggests, ‘A Saint is not a person who never fails; a Saint is a person who gets up and goes on every time they fall.’ Peter’s failures only made him love Jesus Christ more.

These verses also give us insight into more. When Jesus got into the boat, the wind died down. This shows that wherever Jesus is, the wildest storm becomes calm. This was the experience of Francis of Sales: He noticed that when people went to the well to draw water; they would put a piece of wood into the water before carrying it away, to keep the water steady. Francis concluded: Whenever your heart is distressed, put the Cross of Jesus into the centre of your heart, to keep it steady; this will bring peace and calm.

This is indeed my experience ...

Some further thoughts based on the commentary by Suzanne de Dietrich ...

We are not sure how much solitude Jesus had access to at this point in his ministry but it would seem that it only happened at night. In order to experience it, Jesus needed to leave the conditions of their tiny lodgings ‘... that cruel lack of privacy imposed on the poor.’

There are three accounts of the crossing of the lake that took place after the multiplication of the loaves, and all of them point to the difficulty of the crossing and the sudden appearance of Jesus: they all show how the disciples did not recognise Jesus at first and that he appeared to come to them , ‘walking on the sea’. But Matthew alone includes the experience of Peter who also walked on the water but began to sink because he was gripped with fear. All those in the boat prostrated themselves saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

The mystery of this experience calls to mind the post-Resurrection experiences as the disciples’ confession of faith anticipates that which will be made later. Does this reflect the memory of Matthew of the Risen One blending with that of the earthly ministry of Jesus?

But the incident has a double message: (i) Jesus is Lord of the elements because he is clothed with the very power of God. Jesus is not only a teacher whom the disciples follow but also the Son of God to whom they prostrate themselves. (ii) Faith in Jesus is empowering; but the faith that begins to doubt ‘sinks’ and can flounder, but our merciful Lord comes to our aid.

A W Argyle suggests that the secret of Jesus’ power lay not only in the fact that he was the Son of God, but also in the fact that he was constantly in fellowship with the Father in prayer. ‘This was the essence of his inward life, of which his ministry was the outflowing.’ Archbishop William Temple wrote: ‘The right relation between prayer and conduct is not that conduct is supremely important and prayer may help it, but that prayer is supremely important and conduct tests it.’

Verse 27 is of some special significance. What is translated as ‘it is I’ is more literally translated as ‘I am’. As we know these words are often used as a self-revelation of Yahweh in the Old Testament – once again a reference to the Incarnation.

Verses 28-31 are peculiar to Matthew. To come to Jesus across the water required a great deal of courage – which Peter demonstrated – but his faith wavered and Jesus saved him. This must have been of great encouragement to Matthew’s original audience as they were often confronted by ‘storms’ and ‘dangers’. Argyle too, suggests that these verses must have originated from this early preaching of the Church as it is significant that Mark makes no mention of it, and it is accepted that Mark used Peter as his source. It is also interesting to note that here the disciples accepted and declared Jesus as the Son of God and in Mark’s account their ‘minds were closed’!

A few last thoughts on the Gospel reading, this time aided by J C Fenton ...

The emphasis here is to deal with the separation of the disciples from Jesus, their insecurity, their fear – even their terror – which lasts until the fourth watch of the night. The significance here for the Church is that although we are physically separated from Jesus after the resurrection ‘... yet he is praying for them, and will come to them again as the Son of man; they are to take heart and have no fear, although they are beaten by the waves of persecution, and the wind is against them.’

With reference to the passage from verse 28 ff. We know that the early Church revered Peter as the first of the great disciples and the Rock on which the Church is built *(10.2 and 16.18) nevertheless, Matthew adds this important other dimension of Peter’s character and experience: Matthew does not shy away from Peter’s denial of our Lord during the Passion and here he represents Peter as one of ‘little faith’ – a doubter. His failure here and Peter’s restoration by Jesus, may be an anticipation of Peter’s future failure during the Passion and his restoration after the Resurrection.

Fenton suggests that this section seems to be a preachers’ elaboration on a theme by means of a story ... once again, if this is true or not is of little concern to me, because it is my experience that our Lord treats me and those I know and love with the same grace, and for that I am grateful.