“Woman, You Have Great Faith!”
Ordinary 20 Year A
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Matthew 15: 21 — 28
After the incident of Peter walking on the water, the disciples accompanied Jesus across the lake to Gennesaret. The trip began well, with a warm reception. However, following the arrival of a group of scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem, things took a turn for the worse as Jesus tried to present the spiritual understanding behind religious laws. He found it hard going.
Finally He decided to move North and leave His quarrelsome and self-righteous critics to themselves. It was not long before He met what He was looking for! And on the border of a foreign country at that!
Some Reflections on the Text
Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the
region of Tyre and Sidon.
Approaching the border, Jesus left His familiar surroundings and was in the vicinity of Southern Phoenicia, or what, today, we call Lebanon. This was the only time during His ministry He may have left the land of His birth, and this was brought about by His desire to avoid constant opposition. Perhaps, also, it was to have some quality time with His disciples, to whose formation He paid the closest attention.
The suggestion our Lord may have moved even a small distance into Lebanon is not shared by all scholars. The eminent Biblicist, C. C. Martindale, S. J. (a Jesuit Professor) has made this remark — if we may anticipate the following verse in our text, by way of instruction:
“Matthew’s ‘came and called out ….. ‘suggests that our Lord had not
actually entered what was definitely land belonging to those towns;
but there was no fixed line enabling one to say that everyone on one
side of it was Israelite and those beyond it non-Jewish and pagan.
The woman can easily have heard of our Lord as an ‘exorcist’, and
Jewish ‘cult-names’ often found their way into pagan exorcism,
especially ‘God, most High'; still ‘Son of David’ is surprising: possibly
the disciples with whom she seems to have been talking, had advised
her to use this title.”
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and
called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter
is tormented by a demon.”
Thus a Canaanite woman (also referred to as a Phoenician or Syro-Phoenician woman) from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy (or pity) on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession”.
The text indicates she kept on calling out, and the terms she used illustrate a fairly sophisticated awareness of what the Jews expected of their Messiah, and some recognition that He might be it!
But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples
came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps
calling out after us.”
Jesus did not answer a word. No one present was exactly sure what to make of that. It is unclear from our text, the nature of the motive the disciples had in saying, “Send her away”. The popular explanation is to give her what she wants, and so leave them alone. After all, they came here for peace and quiet! However, that explanation is highly suspect on numerous counts.
The late, very eminent Professor Samuel Tobias Lachs, in his Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, wrote the following.
Jesus’s response seems to lack any real meaning if we understand the
statement of the disciples as meaning, “drive her away”. We suggest
that this is not what the disciples had in mind; on the contrary, they
were asking Jesus to fulfil her request and cure her daughter. This
may be explained in one of two ways:” with slight emendation # one
could read auton for auten, not meaning “send her away” but “send
it away,” i.e., release the demon which is afflicting her daughter, or
else, with no emendation, the verb apoluo is to be understood in the
sense of “to free from bond or sickness,” and means, “release her
(the daughter) from the grasp of the demon of illness”. If either
suggestion is correct, the clear sense of Jesus’ response is established.
# emendation — a correction to a text to reflect better the original intention of the author;
remembering our English translation is a translation of a Greek
translation of an original Hebrew text.
After a time, having chosen not to follow the suggestions of the disciples, Jesus then answers the woman in a way she never expected. He may not have said it directly to her, but she almost certainly heard His remark, as it sparks off one of the most intriguing dialogues recorded in all Scripture.
He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the
house of Israel.”
Jesus seems to be saying that His calling and mission is to the nation of Israel which is wandering in a spiritual wilderness (implying, it cannot be allowed to continue).
That is not exactly what the disciples expected to hear! But, let us be aware, our dear Rabbi has perceived an awesome and profound faith in this desperate woman, and He has already decided to put her to the test, not just for her sake, but also to use her faith to raise the level of faith in His disciples.
But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
The Phoenician woman now takes her turn to shock the disciples. She comes closer to Jesus (far too close for good protocol), and kneels down to pay her respects to One she knows as a wise, kind, compassionate and holy rabbi. Whether she heard our Lord’s previous comment is irrelevant.
Brushing aside all social correctness in her state of complete desperation, she simply pleads, as though with her last breath:
“Lord help me!”
This is a tender moment. At great risk to her own reputation, but urged on by the pitiful plight of her daughter, and with nowhere else to go, she places before Him every bit of hope she dares to manifest. She sees this moment as her last hope of obtaining any help whatsoever.
He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the
children and throw it to the dogs.”
At this point, the “wise, kind, compassionate and holy rabbi” she so much admires, makes what appears to be the most arrogant, self-righteous, cold and rather insolent statement that He was ever heard to utter. So much for the woman’s desperate last-breath plea!
Even the disciples are stunned, and keep well out of it. They understand perfectly what Jesus was saying, as the attitude was well known within certain levels of Judaism.
The reasoning implied goes:
• I have a mission to help my people “get back on track”, with the
practice of genuine religion.
• This mission applies to Jews only and not half Jews or any other
contaminated mixture of race or religion.
• You are not a Jew, and regardless of how urgent you think your
cause is, you have no right to confront me and expect me to accord
the same privilege of healing to you, as to my own people.
• The matter is therefore a simple one, you have no right even to ask
for it, let alone expect it!
Shocking as this appears to us, the woman, to our surprise, takes no offence whatsoever, and is not the least bit taken aback. Our Lord’s statement stops us in our tracks, but it didn’t stop her. Why?
We need to understand that Jesus has stated an intellectual position very common among a certain group of rabbis: not all, by any means, but a significant group, just the same. In His manner and delivery He has invited the woman to engage in a typically Middle East type of witty debate. It is a dual of wit, not a theological debate. Those who enter into it have already received from each other perfectly clear signals of good will and appropriate respect. The question becomes how will this woman reply to the seemingly obnoxious and contemptuous insult?
The Jerome Bible Commentary has a helpful perspective.
The dialogue is an instance of the kind of wit that was and is admired in
the Middle East, the same wit that is called wisdom in the Old Testament;
it is the ability to match riddle with riddle, to cap one wise saying with
another, to match insult with insult, or — as here — to turn the insult
into a commitment. There is nothing unrealistic about the exchange at
all; Jesus would not have been a genuine Palestinian if he had not
occasionally engaged in a duel of wit. The scene is much more a scene
of peasant good humor than it is of solemn theological debate.
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall
from the table of their masters.”
The woman recognises that Jesus has slipped into “dual-of-wit” mode by objecting strongly to the injustice of taking the “children’s bread” (i.e. the heritage of the Jews) and tossing it at their “dogs” (i.e. the non-Jews, the pagans, the gentiles). Without any delay whatsoever she comes straight back at Him.
“Yes Rabbi, but even the dogs eat the crumbs
that fall from their master’s table.”
The Greek text suggests there was a slight pause. The Rabbi’s challenge has been matched, to say the least!
The retort put forward by the woman contains all the signs of a highly intelligent person, though of humble status and frame of mind, who will not put up with any nonsense!
Her implied response contained the following elements:
• Yes, I can see you have a mission to help your own people to live
more honestly according to the moral and spiritual values of your
• I understand that your own people have first priority when it comes
to receiving the benefits of your ministry.
• I know you Jews believe you profess a pure and unadulterated faith
compared with us non-Jews whom you call “dogs”.
• I accept that in matters of religion, you are the masters and we
probably deserve to be called dogs.
But when a master is eating, he lets his dogs eat any scraps which fall from his table, even if he doesn’t throw them anything. Rabbi, please, I at least have the rights of a dog!
• I am not asking you to give me anything I have no right to; but I do
believe I have some right to a little help which will not deprive
anyone else of what is truly theirs. And, if I may be so bold as to say,
I believe that you would not deny me that privilege, not even for a
• There is a slight moment’s silence. Everyone present has heard this
amazing mother’s deepest thoughts.
If the disciples were stunned at the earlier statement by Jesus, they are completely “blown away” by the reply of the woman.
Confronted by a seemingly impenetrable and impassable wall, she unflinchingly pressed forward with her faith, and she let Him hear it in humble, yet, no uncertain terms!
Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was
healed from that hour.
Before such resistance, the test-barrier put up by Jesus crumbles at once, and when the dust settles, He pays her the greatest tribute ever made to a human being:
“O Woman, great is your faith. Be it done!”
Yeshua has brought to the surface of this courageous woman a faith of the highest calibre. He responds with the most awesome power of the Creator — and, as at creation, says to her in the presence of His disciples, “Let it be!” In other words, “Let your daughter be made whole, just as you have humbly implored, in the most laudable manner, surpassing anything I have ever heard or seen!”
Only the compliment paid to the Roman Centurion approached that given on this occasion.
To many of us, reading this today, the tribute paid by Jesus to the non-Jewish woman: “You have great faith,” does not seem especially remarkable. This is due to what is often lost in translation from a language as used 2000 years ago into contemporary English.
In the previous text for our meditation, Matthew 14: 22 — 30 (Jesus walking on the lake), Peter was shown how his faith was not equal to the challenge before him. In contrast, in the current reading, the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman is undaunted by the greatest barrier Jesus can put in place between them. Yet, in no time, with her indestructible faith at work, it disintegrates before her, and when our Lord acknowledges this fact to her, the request for her daughter’s healing is granted instantly.
The Lesson on faith, for the disciples, is now complete.
We close with a comment from a Sunday sermon of St John Chrysostom (AD 347 – 407), Bishop of Constantinople during the height of Christian culture in that place. Though written, and translated, in a style we may find a little unfamiliar, it is worth reading slowly several times; for in these lines are contained some understandings of God’s way with humanity which led to many souls entering the Church in the 4th and 5th centuries. We could profit from reflecting on how the Church in St John Chrysostom’s day confronted the vast pagan world fearlessly and with indomitable faith. It might help us as we try to do the same.
O woman, great is thy faith.
Yea, therefore did He put her off, that He might proclaim aloud this
saying, that He might crown the woman.
“Be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” Now what He saith is like this;
“Thy faith indeed is able to effect even greater things than these”.
This was akin to that voice that said, Let the Heaven be, and it was.
And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
Seest thou how this woman too, contributed not a little to the
healing of her daughter? For to this purpose neither did Christ say.
“Let thy little daughter he made whole,” but, “Great is thy faith.”
Be it unto thee even as thou wilt; to teach thee that the words were
not used at random, nor were they flattering words, but great was
the power of her faith.
The certain rest, however, and demonstration thereof, He left to the
issue of events. Her daughter accordingly was straightway healed.
But mark thou, I pray thee, how when the apostles had failed, and
had not succeeded, this woman had success. So great a thing is
assiduity in prayer. Yea he had even rather be solicited by us, guilty
as we are, for those who belong to us, than by others in our behalf.
And yet they had more liberty to speak; but she exhibited much
And by the issue He also excused Himself to His disciples for the
delay, and showed that with reason He had not assented to their
(St John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St Matthew, LII)
He who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches
the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal, Nor will it withdraw
till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right.
Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 35: 16 — 18
Blessed be God who permits that even the dogs eat
the scraps that fall from the table of their masters!
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(Mark 16: 15)
The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!
Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
Woman, You Have Great Faith
Ordinary 20 Year A St. Matthew 15: 21 — 28
Let us pray for one another that when the way ahead seems impossible — the towering granite mountains look impenetrable — we will have the faith to keep going forward, calling on Jesus: “Lord, help me.”
Blessed be God, who calls us all
Matthew 15: 21 — 28
Ordinary 20 Year A
21 9 Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre
22 And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
23 But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and
24 10 He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of
25 But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
26 He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children 11 and
27 She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from
28 Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! 12 Let
9 [21-28] See the note on ⇒ Matthew 8:5-13.
10  See the note on ⇒ Matthew 10:5-6.
11  The children: the people of Israel. Dogs: see the note on ⇒ Matthew 7:6.
12  As in the case of the cure of the centurion’s servant (⇒ Matthew 8:10), Matthew ascribes
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised