Canon Chancellor - Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford
Difficult. It is one of those descriptive adjectives only really used about women
You know what it implies. A difficult woman is a noisy woman, a bossy woman, a woman who jabs her finger to make a point in an argument, a woman who is not deferential, who makes no particular effortto be gracious or polite.
It is a description used of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, of Dianne Abbot MP, of tennis player Serena Williams, of Michelle Obama… you might notice another common factor here, it is a trope or stereotype often used for women of colour.
In our gospel today Jesus meets a difficult woman. Matthew goes out of his way to comment on her tribal or racial identity, she is a syro-phoenician woman. Robert Lenz the iconographer represents her as a Palestinian peasant woman, dark skinned, wearing a black dress embellished with red cross stitch embroidery.
Jesus and the disciples are already outside their comfort zone, in territory in the modern country of Lebanon, many miles from Galilee or Jerusalem. It was a pagan city, and it seems likely that Jesus and the disciples had fled there for a period to hide from the Roman authorities.
The last thing Jesus needs is for someone to be drawing attention to him, even if she has come to ask for healing for her daughter. The gospel writer is clear, the woman shouts at him, and when Jesus ignores her, she keeps shouting.
The disciples are embarrassed by her and tell Jesus to send her away. Which he sort of does – and he says something that we might find challenges our image of Jesus. Jesus speaks of his mission as being constrained…he has come only to recover the lost sheep of Israel. He has come to draw the outsiders back into the fold, but only one category of outsiders, the Jews who have strayed, not others like this difficult woman.
It is interesting that Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, preserves this story, as it doesn’t show Jesus at his best, even by the conventions of his own time.
This is not the picture of Jesus who picks up the prostitute from the dust, or allows a woman to wipe his feet with her hair. This is a much more spiky, anxious Jesus, who really wants this woman to go away.
But, this difficult woman challenges Jesus She invites him to a deeper understanding of his identity. To do this, she has to endure the insult of being called a dog, worse, a bitch.
Jesus explains that the bread from his table, from his Father’s table, is meant for the children not for the dogs And this brave, determined woman, answers him back. Do not even the dogs eat the crumbs from under the table? She asks.
At this point, Jesus sees her.
He sees the woman who needs healing for her child.
He sees the woman who has shouted not because she is angry or rude, but because she is desperate.
He sees the woman who is clear eyed about who he is, who trusts him, who can see God at work in this strange travelling Jewish prophet.
He sees her faith…and he heals her daughter.
And Jesus sees something else.
This dark skinned, loud mouthed, difficult woman opens the eyes of the Son of David to see that his call is not only to the children of Israel, but to the whole world.
God has used her to challenge and to bless his Son, to extend his vision, to widen his horizons, to change his world view.
This is an isolated incident and Matthew tells us that Jesus and the disciples return immediately to the safety of Galilee. Yet because of this woman, and others like the Roman Centurion who came seeking healing for his son, the followers of Jesus came to understand that this was a way of life into which all were called, Jews and Gentiles, believers and pagans.
The healing for the daughter of the syro-phoenician woman is a foretaste of the Kingdom.
A foretaste of Kingdom that the prophet Isaiah imagined, a world in which all nations, all tribes, all people would gather to love the name of the Lord and to pray and praise together.
This is the world the psalmist celebrated, in which God would bless his people to the very ends of the earth.
The Old Testament vision, the vision of the prophets and the psalmists, was one where the gentiles would eventually travel towards Israel, towards God’s holy mountain, to the temple in Jerusalem.
By contrast, we see that Jesus finds that God is already present on the margins and the edges of the Jewish world. The Syro-Phoenecian woman does not need to be taught about God or to hear Jesus teach, she already knows the truth, that God loves her and wants the best for her.
She is waiting to bless Jesus.
The poet, philosopher and priest John O’Donohue meditates on the act of blessing. He notices how we cannot bless or be blessed by someone who does not really see us or know us, but that the act of blessing can be an awakening of a new understanding. He tells the story of visiting the convent as a young newly ordained priest and how the elderly nun who met him at the gate asked for his blessing.
Having given it, he was struck by the holiness and humility of this woman who had spent most of her adult life in prayer and contemplation. He asked for her blessing in return.
“she was completely taken aback,
and practically ran from the room.”
Her conventional understanding of their roles meant that she could not imagine blessing him, but he had already sensed the blessing that she was to him.
This has been my experience of the Christian life. I have been most blessed by the most unlikely people in the most unlikely places, by the difficult women and the anxious men, by the folk on the margins, by the people who were willing to challenge me and the people who were not impressed by my dog collar or my qualifications, but who saw a sister and a daughter of Abraham in me.
So today I invite you to pray a blessing on the difficult ones, on those who have to raise their voices to be heard, on those who have to say things more than once because we are deaf to their perspective, on those who are misunderstood but who speak with the voices of angels, bringing messages from God to open our eyes to new truths, in Jesus’ name,