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A Canaanite Woman’s Faith

Who is God? This is a big question. Perhaps the big question. All our other questions about the meaning of the universe, how to have a meaningful life, how to live in this world of suffering and compromise and ethical grey space – but which also has moments of transcendent moral clarity and of great beauty- all these questions are subsumed by the question: what are we talking about when we talk about God?

Is there some underlying melody to the universe – and if so, how do we sing in harmony with it?

Right now, as we enter the second week of stage 4 restrictions – restrictions which already feel like they’ve been going on all year – I find myself asking: where is God in all of this? How do we trust God when the weight of the evidence can feel like it’s on the other side?

Who is God? And is God faithful?

There is a basic Christian principle that Jesus reveals God to us. Scripture describes him as the “image of the invisible God.”[1] Or, as John’s gospel puts it:

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.[2]

So we turn to today’s passage, expecting to learn something about God and faith and how to live.

And we do: we are confronted with a really quite shocking scene in which a woman pleads for help from Jesus who at first ignores her, and then insults her by calling her a dog – but she wins him over by both her steadfast faith and her wit. Jesus then praises her faith, and does as she asks and heals her child.

This is troubling for a lot of reasons – but probably the main one is that Jesus doesn’t, at first, seem like he is going to help her. He ignores her, and then, when she has made a vast nuisance of herself, he finally responds, but with a dismissive, even insulting, remark. But, amazingly, she argues back, and wins her point.

There is a hard question of interpretation here: did Jesus lose the argument? Or was this some sort of teachable moment? Did Jesus always know what he was going to do, and arranged the whole thing in order to make a point? Or was there a real engagement there? A real argument, with a real response?

I think the direction we lean with this says something about who, or perhaps what, we think God is really like.

If we think that God is completely unchangeable, with a plan which she set in concrete at the beginning of time, then we are going to think that Jesus had a set in concrete plan.  As an old hymn puts it “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” A completely transcendent, completely unreachable God.

We might describe this as the God of the Philosophers[3]. The sort of God which Plato or Aristotle would come up with. After all, if God is outside of time, then it is very hard to imagine God changing – because change has the idea of time built into it. The idea of God changing becomes like the idea of the number 7 gradually changing to 8 over time. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

However, as Christians, we don’t believe in the generic “God of the Philosophers.”  Rather, we believe in the God of Abraham and Jacob, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, the God who is revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He is, as Scripture puts it, “the image of the invisible God.”[4]

And the chief way in which we seek to understand more about Jesus, and hence about God, is through the study of Scripture – informed by tradition, reason, and experience[5] – rather than trying to figure it out from first principles.

We are part of a people, inheritors of a story, rather than disinterested seekers after truth.

And, if we turn to Scripture, we find that in our story there is a long, long tradition of arguing, even wrestling, with God. I could cite a lot of examples, but here are two.

In Genesis[6] God is talking with Abraham. God has decided that, if Sodom is as bad as he has heard, then he will destroy it. Abraham, however, doesn’t think that is fair. What if God finds 50 righteous people: will he still destroy it? God agrees that that wouldn’t be entirely fair. Abraham then has another go, and suggests if five are lacking, then it would seem a bit harsh? God agrees that seems fair, and says that for the sake of 45 people he will spare it. But Abraham isn’t finished: he gradually beats God down to 10 righteous people. God agrees with Abraham and they go their separate ways.

Years later on, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, is on his way to make amends to his brother Esau – long story. He camps at a place he calls Peniel[7]. And there he wrestles with God, and hangs in there until dawn, when he receives a blessing, a new name, and a limp for his trouble. The name that God gives Jacob is important: he names him “Israel”, which means “wrestles with God.”

And that’s our starting point. That’s where the story of Christianity begins. We are adopted into the story of the people who argue with God. This woman, this non-Jewish woman who makes an astonishingly unseemly fuss, who badgers Jesus into listening to her, and who has the astonishing poise to engage Jesus in witty dialogue, and who wins her point.

OK, so that’s a reasonably interesting point. But what does it have to do with us?

There is something important underlying this, something which makes it possible for the woman to engage like she does, and that is her faith. That is, not her firm grasp of the basics of Christian theology, but her trust in Jesus. In her trust that he is who he says he is.

That is, her faith that God is faithful.

That, fundamentally, is the point that the idea of God’s unchanging nature is trying to grasp. What we long for, and what Scripture reveals, is a God who is for us, who holds us in the palm of her hand, who, as Jesus says of himself, will be with us, even to the end of the age.

God isn’t a natural law like gravity, or rationally discoverable like mathematics. How do you enter into relationship with a number? How do you pray to an impersonal force? The God of Plato and Aristotle is too busy contemplating its own perfection to be interested in humanity. But the God who reveals himself through Jesus is profoundly, and mysteriously, involved in this suffering, beautiful, impossible to grasp world.

And this God, who is relational at core, invites us into relationship with her. The Trinitarian idea of God is that the innermost nature of God is more like a dance than a number, and God invites us to become part of that dance of love and self-giving.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It is, perhaps, simple, but not easy. We live in a cross-pressured world, where we can’t just take God for granted. But exactly because of that, we are in a position to learn to trust God as God. We can’t rely on institutions to do it for us, we can’t rely on society in general. All we have is God, and one another.

It may seem hackneyed to say this, but it is nonetheless true: life is a journey, a pilgrimage. And, I think, learning to trust God is a whole life’s work.

Let me finish with a fragment of a poem, and a question.

The poem is a little bit of T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton, the first of his Four Quartets

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.[8]

And here’s the question. It’s the same question I asked you via email: where have you found God faithful in your life?

A sermon preached at Preston High Street Uniting Church on 12/8/20 for the Eleventh Week after Pentecost Proper 16(21) Year A – Matthew 15: 21-28

[1] Colossians 1:15

[2] John 1:18

[3] Following Pascal.

[4] Colossians 1:15

[5] Aka the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

[6] Genesis 18:22-33

[7] Genesis 32:22-32. Peniel means “The face of God.”

[8] T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”, Four Quartets, ii.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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