‘O woman, great is your faith.’
Behind all three readings today, there’s one same thing: the great divide between the Jews and non-Jews, the latter also known as Gentiles or pagans or in Hebrew and Yiddish the goyim or goys. We all know how this division – through the Balfour Declaration, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, the current tragic hostilities – is still with us and has marked the history of the last 100 years. Each of the three readings, in different contexts and ways, envisages this divide being overcome. The 1st reading from Isaiah foresees ‘foreigners’, that is non-Jews, one day being able to worship in the Jewish Temple. St Paul, in the 2nd reading, against a background of growing Jewish opposition to the new Christian movement, foresees the Jewish people one day acknowledging Jesus as their Messiah. In the Gospel, Jesus is in ‘the region of Tyre and Sidon’, outside the Holy Land, in pagan territory, and meets a ‘Canaanite’ woman, a pagan. He rebuffs her because she is a pagan, a goy, and then gives way to her. ‘O woman, great is your faith. Let your wish be granted’.
This division is a great mystery, and it’s unresolved. Perhaps a parallel to it is the emergence of humanity within the rest of nature. In both cases, God is the prime mover. He calls humanity out of nature; it’s a decisive step, a leap. He calls Abraham out of Ur and his descendants out of Egypt. It’s the same. And in both cases trouble results. Man disturbs the balance of nature and the people of God upset the balance of humanity.
Where is the resolution?
But let’s look at the Gospel. It’s so very vivid, humorous too. Jesus has gone north, into what is now southern Lebanon. He’s gone to be alone with the disciples. And this pagan, Canaanite woman appears and approaches him. She’s like the pagan wise men from the East: she’s aware of the prophecy that a Saviour will one day come from the Jewish people. She’s heard of Jesus. She thinks he could be it. She knows he has miraculous powers. And she has a real problem: ‘my daughter is tormented by a devil.’ She’s living day and night with a child completely out of control. Imagine the disturbance! She’s a parent, a mother, in a daily nightmare. No wonder she comes out crying and shouting! This is not Cults or Surbiton. It’s the Mediterranean, the Levant, the Near East, And her first word is one we’ve used already this morning, ‘eleison’, ‘have mercy’. And she calls Jesus, not ‘Sir’, but ‘Kyrie’, Lord. Every time she addresses him, she calls him this. Three times in all. ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,’ she begins. This is a cry from the heart. It’s intense, heartfelt prayer.
And what’s the response? Absolute silence. ‘He answered her not a word.’ He just kept on walking. Then the disciples, in their clumsy way, intervene: ‘please give her what she wants and so get rid of her.’ We wants peace. And now Jesus puts salt on her wound: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ She must have heard this. I have my mission from the Father, and it is to the Jews. The Gentiles will come later; they must wait their turn. I’ve no intention of doing anything for this woman.
But she now runs ahead of them and gets in Jesus’ way. She bows or kneels or even prostrates in front of him – the word in the Gospel can mean any of the three. It can mean ‘worship’. The woman does what the wise men do before the baby Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel and the disciples do before the risen Christ at the very end of it. And again she prays, ‘Lord / Kyrie’, this time ‘help me’.
She has already met with silence and then indirect rebuff. Now she gets a full-blown insult: ‘It isn’t good to take the children’s bread – what belongs to the Jews – and give it to the dogs’, pagans like you. What a mystery Jesus is! How unlike our preconceptions! But something in her, something in the way he said it or the look in his eyes, something – grace, indeed – leads her on. And now a distraught pagan woman outwits a Jewish man, a human being gets the better of God: ‘Yes Kyrie, Lord’, she says, ‘and even these little dogs can lick up the crumbs that fall from the tables of their lords.’ Even little dogs, though they can’t sit at the table, are part of the household. Doesn’t the master have a care for them as well. She’s found the key. She has scored. She has won.
‘O woman, great is your faith!’ (God forgive the translators who leave out that ‘O’!). This is a cry of wonder and astonishment and delight on Jesus’ part. Five times in the Gospels, Jesus says ‘O’. And this is the one time it expresses his joy. The Word has found faith. The Shepherd has found a lost sheep. The new Adam has found a new Eve. And he’s ‘wow-ed’. Here he is with his obtuse disciples, and suddenly, among the Gentiles, he has found someone who’s ‘got’ it, who has read his heart, someone who in her pain has come to the knowledge of God. The daughter is healed, peace returns to the woman’s house, and on the edge of a pagan village the great divide is overcome.
Behind today’s readings, don’t we see our own experience? The public, epic, tragic divisions of history, real today in so many parts of the world, and the private losses, sadnesses, struggles of each of us, of our families, our households? This is life. And how are these overcome? How’s the great divide between us and happiness overcome? Where’s the final resolution? It isn’t in us.
‘O woman, great is your faith!’ What was her faith? It was faith in mercy. This pagan woman in some inspired way knew that that was the heart of God and that was her greatest need. She knew what everyone of is will know when we are dying. ‘Lord, have mercy!’ Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ ‘God, says St Paul, has imprisoned all men in their own disobedience only to show mercy to all mankind’.
There is only one resolution for our great divides, only one resolution in time and eternity: the mercy of God. The Popes of our own time have said this over and over again. St John Paul II wrote a beautiful encyclical on this, Divies in misericordia, ‘Rich in mercy’. He promoted the figure and message of St Faustina Kowalska, the 20th c. apostle of divine mercy. He deliberately canonised her as the first saint for the 21st c., – to put a reminder of God’s mercy at the very start of the 3rd millennium – and called it the happiest day of his life. Pope Francis speaks of mercy again and again. St John XXIII said fifty years ago that the Church must offer the world the medicine of mercy.
As Christians, we are called to believe in mercy. We come to church for mercy: the mercy of fellowship, of forgiveness in confession, the mercy of the Eucharist. We are called to pray for mercy, not just for ourselves, but for the world: ‘Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.’ We are called to be merciful. It doesn’t mean being ‘indulgent’ in the bad sense, or having no care for justice, or whitewashing everything. O no! It’s a clear-eyed recognition of evil and suffering and sin. But it knows, through the Cross of Christ, that there is something in God’s heart greater than all these things.
‘O woman, great is your faith!’ We’re that woman (even if we’re men). The Church is a ‘she’. Mary is the mother of mercy. How wonderful if the Lord were to say to each of us, to each of our parishes and communities, to our diocese: ‘O, great is your faith!’ Your faith in my mercy. How wonderful if we could provoke such an ‘O’ from the mouth of Christ!