Woman of great faith – gentile matriarch of Christians
This year on Aug. 16 we hear Jesus utter the words, “O woman, great is your faith” (Matt. 15:28). The woman is a Canaanite, the first gentile woman portrayed as having faith in Jesus in this gospel. Jesus and the disciples are in Gentile territory and an unnamed woman approaches him and begs for the healing of her daughter. The disciples try to dismiss her, but she prevails and enters into conversation with Jesus, persuading him, by her faith, to heal her daughter (Matt. 15:21-28).
The episode also appears in Mark (7:25-30). The majority of New Testament scholars believe that Matthew based his gospel on Mark. Looking at the changes Matthew made to Mark’s narrative highlights some of Matthew‘s concerns in writing for his own Jewish-Christian community. Matthew changes the nationality of the woman from Mark’s Syro-phoenician to a Canaanite; she is not only gentile but a member of the age-old enemies of the Jewish people. Additionally, Matthew expands the description of the woman and her dialogue with Jesus.
The woman approaches Jesus and, expressing faith in Jesus, says: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David, my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” When Jesus did not answer her, His disciples ask Him to send her away “for she is shouting after us.” Jesus responds: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Previously, Jesus had sent his disciples off on a mission, but only to “the lost sheep of Israel” (10:6). Hence, their request to “send her away” would be in keeping with Jesus’ mission command.
The woman persists and, this time kneeling before Jesus, begs, “Lord, help me.” He answers: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She answers back: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Jesus recognizes her faith with the memorable words: “O woman great is your faith. Be it done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed.
Mark had Jesus heal the daughter because of the mother’s clever rejoinder; Matthew clearly has Jesus respond on account of her faith.
Studying the narrative flow of the gospel allows one to see that Matthew means to show his Christian-Jewish audience that even Jesus moved beyond his original understanding of his mission to the Jewish people; he was also sent for “the nations.” Previously in Matthew’s gospel (14:22-33), one reads of the storm on the lake as Jesus and the disciples are heading for the other side of the lake, gentile territory. This is the story in which Peter recognizes Jesus walking on the water and Peter begins walking toward him; but then Peter’s faith fails and he begins to sink. Jesus rescues him and asks, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” This episode also highlights the struggle to admit Gentiles into the earliest Christian community.
Peter’s original “little faith” in this matter contrasted with the Canaanite woman’s “great faith” are important aspects of Matthew’s gospel. The non-Jewish woman’s faith resulted in changing Jesus’ own understanding of his mission. Moreover, at the conclusion of this gospel, the 11, including Peter, are in Galilee and the Risen Jesus addresses them. There he broadens his disciples’ mission from “only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” to “Go make disciples of all nations.”
What challenge does the narrative of the woman of “great faith” present to us today? Has any non-Catholic Christian or non-Christian today expanded our vision of God’s presence in others?