The third in a new series of articles by Martyn Percy, linked to themes in his An Advent Manifesto, our 2023 Advent book.
3 December 2023
Advent bread for everyone
Jesus left that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And suddenly out came a Canaanite woman from that district and started shouting, ‘Lord, Son of David, take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ But he said not a word in answer to her. And his disciples went and pleaded with him, saying, ‘Give her what she wants, because she keeps shouting after us.’ He said in reply, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ But the woman had come up and was bowing low before him. ‘Lord,’ she said, ‘help me.’ He replied, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs.’ She retorted, ‘Ah yes, Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, you have great faith. Let your desire be granted.’ And from that moment her daughter was well again.
Matthew 15:21–28 (Jerusalem Bible)
A welcome surprise has the power to energise, replenish and reassert the course of your life. Whether a kind gesture from a stranger, an unexpected call from an old friend during a tough time, a new and unlikely connection or an embrace much-needed and unprompted, such moments remind us that we live by faith and by the element of surprise.
Gerard Hughes, the much-loved Roman Catholic writer, explored the centrality of surprise in faith in his hugely popular book God of Surprises. You may be on a path of complete assuredness, apparently far from God – perhaps a committed atheist, a long-term agnostic, a believer who has taken their faith for granted or lost a deep sense of it – but the God of surprises catches all off guard.
I used to ask my theological students: do you think Jesus got a surprise at the resurrection? Some said, ‘No, of course not!’; others surely covertly dismissed it as a silly question. I don’t know that anyone concluded that he might have. My own response was more than mischievous: I said Jesus lived by faith and died in faith, and when he was raised from the dead, it is likely he got the most tremendous surprise. Such is the life of faith.
If living by faith is to live with the possibility of being surprised, it does the beg the question, could anything have surprised Jesus? If this question fills you with doubt, then remember: Jesus is forever travelling, crossing boundaries and seeking new connections.
Jesus lived by faith and died in faith, and when he was raised from the dead, it is likely he got the most tremendous surprise. Such is the life of faith.
The gospels are full of surprising encounters across boundaries of race and religion: the story of the Samaritan woman in John’s gospel, for example, or the account of the Gerasene demoniac, the Roman centurion and the Canaanite woman.
The Canaanites were the original inhabitants of Palestine, treated with scorn and as traditional enemies of Israel. The unnamed woman started shouting, ‘Lord, Son of David, take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ This is the first time in Matthew’s gospel that a woman addresses Jesus, and she happens to be an outsider. She calls him Lord, and Son of David – which is unusual as most encounters in the gospels include one but not both identifiers. And as the encounter continues, this woman shows that she is full of surprises.
A surprising response
We might say she has an extremely high Christology, but Jesus does not answer her at all. He ignores her profound appeal for her daughter, who is suffering from some form of epilepsy. Perhaps he doesn’t want to know. Or perhaps he takes a moment to prepare a response.
Whatever his reasons, there is no doubt that Jesus’ lack of response surprises the hearer of this gospel. To see Christ apparently so dismissive in the face of such need and distress is wounding to those of faith. In the story, his disciples urge Jesus to dismiss the woman outright, to stop her following, to cease her shouting. Jesus finally breaks his silence, seemingly sharing the harshness and prejudice of his disciples: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’
In this moment he is a pious Jewish teacher, the role emphasised by Matthew who seeks to root Jesus in his religion and people.
Jesus’ lack of response surprises the hearer of this gospel. To see Christ apparently so dismissive in the face of such need and distress is wounding to those of faith.
Right: A canaan dog in Israel (photo by Yigal Parado, CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED; cropped)
The roots of fundamentalism
Today, influential people seem to know precisely who they are and where they are. In anxious and uneasy times, when conflicts dominate our news, the temptation is to simplify things into a binary ‘us versus them’. But the ‘us versus them’ worldview is the foundation of fundamentalism in all its guises: religious, political or built into attitudes to economics, class, gender, race or nation.
It is alluring: there is comfort in knowing where you stand, who you stand with and who you stand against. But is it also dangerous. Across the expanse of history, we see how such crude divisions are easily exploited by dictators and megalomaniacs. When people view identity in this way, violence, conflict, stereotyping and scapegoating flourish, creating a world without grace, without generosity and nuance: a world without surpise.
There is no doubt that Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman is hard to process. Many a commentator has tried to understand the episode in softer ways – Jesus is merely testing her, perhaps. But this softening obscures the offensiveness of his silence. What is truly surprising is the fact that this woman does not give up. She is othered, despised, discriminated against. But her purpose is strong: she knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ She prostrates herself, placing herself and her daughter at his mercy. If we could rewrite the story as we would want it, we might say Jesus reached out to her, lovingly taking her hand, praying for her daughter and ending the story in joy. As it is recorded, Jesus answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs.’
This is a horrendously harsh statement. The dogs are scavengers, predatory animals, treated as pariahs. Far from the household pets we cherish today, the dog was an inferior creature and a standard derogatory term used by Jews for Gentiles.
The woman replied, ‘Yes, Lord; yet even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.’
I think this response comes as surprise to Jesus. Does it change his mind? Scholars debate this, but to me, it is much more than a simple change of mind. Taken wholly by surprise by this woman’s humility and faith, he has a heart, mind, body and soul conversion. He responds with an implicit ‘Wow!’: ‘Woman, you have great faith. Let your desire be granted.’
Taken wholly by surprise by this woman’s humility and faith, Jesus has a heart, mind, body and soul conversion.
Being open to surprise
Jesus suddenly sees that someone he initially considered contemptible, other, foreign – one of them, not one of us – is in fact more pious and full of faith than he ever imagined possible.
Matthew’s gospel focuses on the movements of early Jewish Christian communities after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. These communities prized their Jewish inheritance even as they received the gospel of Jesus Christ. They had to learn that Jews and Gentiles alike belong to one Lord and their lives changed radically as the previously impenetrable wall of enmity fell in response to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Every generation has to face the same challenge. How do you hold on to your valued identity, yet be open to the surprises that God has in store? This beautiful gospel story of an astonishing encounter between Jesus and someone who is not only a woman, but also a true outsider is surprising with a capital ‘s’. It is revolutionary for the earliest Christian communities.
Jesus’ mission is a universal mission. There is no ‘us and them’ – there is only one new common humanity. We are called to live by faith, and with that, live by surprise. Surprise is embedded in the very life of God. May the God of surprises always wrong-foot us, and may we always have the grace and courage, as Jesus did, to be open to being wrong-footed.